American Slave story embroidered on a sack

Inspiration for world’s most prestigious history prize

Author Tiya Miles

The Cundill History Prize is not only Canada’s richest English writing prize; it is also the world’s most prestigious history prize.  Earlier this month a book about a cotton sack owned by three generations of female slaves took the 2022 prize!

“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake”, written by American professor Tiya Miles, won the Cundill Prize and the $102,000 award that goes with the prize at a ceremony in Montreal.  The annual award honours the top history writing in the English language and is administered by McGill University.

The book, which also won last year’s $13,000 U.S. National Book Award for Non-Fiction, is the story of an enslaved mother and her daughter, which traces the lives of three generations of Black women through just one possession: a cotton sack.

According to the Prize Jury the author, “facing a scarcity of archival sources on these women’s lives, turned to material culture, art, and the environment to piece together a singular history of slavery. The author illuminates the human condition through the family story embroidered

All That She Carried
Author Tiya Miles

with just a handful of words that evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love, passed down through generations.”

In mid-19th century South Carolina, a slave woman named Rose gave a rough cotton bag, (she called Ashley’s Sack), filled with a few precious items to her nine-year old daughter, Ashley, as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival as well.

Soon after, the young girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language—including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.”

Historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records and draws on objects and art, to follow the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—in a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.

The late F. Peter Cundill (1938 – January 24, 2011) was an alumnus of McGill university and a successful global investor. He believed that it was only possible to comprehend the present by understanding the past. The prize was established in 2008 and continues to this day thanks to the Cundill Foundation and McGill.