Bench Ansfield - Society of American Historians - Book Prize Winner

May 19, 2022

May 16, 2022, NEW YORK, N.Y.—Three prizes honoring historical work of exceptional literary merit are awarded today by the Society of American Historians (SAH) at Columbia University. The Society, founded in 1939 by Allan Nevins, an American journalist and historian, encourages and promotes literary distinction in the writing and presentation of American history. The Society’s members – by invitation only – consist of scholars, independent historians, journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, public historians, biographers and poets.

The 62nd annual Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written doctoral dissertation on a significant subject in American history is awarded to Bench Ansfield for their dissertation, “Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century” (Yale University). This groundbreaking work examines the rush of arson-for-profit that ravaged the Bronx and dozens of other US cities in the 1970s. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the urban fires after the Civil Rights moment resulted not from neighborhood uprisings but from slum landlords emboldened by the expansion of federally supported fire insurance payouts. Complementing now-familiar explanations of how redlining in the property insurance market exacerbated racial inequality before 1968, Ansfield turns our attention to subprime insurance policies that subsequently flooded the rental insurance market in low-income communities—a practice Ansfield aptly terms “brownlining.” The public-private partnerships that promoted brownlining presented it as a progressive alternative to the discriminatory redlining practices of the past, yet ultimately they reinscribed racial segregation into the urban landscape and incentivized widespread property destruction. Ansfield’s narrative thus fills a lacuna in the joint histories of deindustrialization and racial capitalism. Using an array of previously untapped government records, as well as archival repositories and oral history collections, Ansfield provides new insights into the growth of financial, insurance, and real estate industries, and the way marginalized communities negotiated their conditions under urban restructuring. For many years to come, scholars across the disciplines will turn to Ansfield’s exhaustively researched history as they analyze the public-private mechanisms that fueled racial inequality in the 1970s and beyond. Readers will find an artfully structured and beautifully written book, with language that has both moral power and explanatory clarity. Ansfield, who earned their Ph.D. at Yale University in May 2021 under the direction of Joanne Meyerowitz and Michael Denning, is currently an American Democracy Fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Harvard University. The Allan Nevins Prize, named for the Society’s founder, is awarded annually to a doctoral dissertation on an American subject that is distinguished by literary merit. The winning dissertation will be published by one of the publisher members of the Society. The 2022 jurors were Jared Farmer and Elizabeth Hinton.

Full press release is available here.