Sofia Valeonti, 2020–21 HOPE Center Fellow

Happily, scholarship knows no national boundaries—which explains why a young historian from the Greek island of Samos and trained at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne finds herself at the HOPE Center writing about US economic debates during Reconstruction.

Sofia Valeonti, a 2020–21 HOPE Center fellow, is currently examining the post–Civil War debate over the economic future of the formerly enslaved population. Should the country maintain its position as a leading producer of cotton and tobacco, even if it meant denying land ownership to freed people?

“On one side were people who wanted the US to make good on its promise of forty acres and a mule, that the country should redistribute land to the freedmen and make them independent landholders,” Sofia says. “On the other were people who wanted to maintain the essence of the plantation system but pay formerly enslaved people to work on it.”

She eventually hopes to bring that debate into contact with the related controversies over money and tariffs of the period—the subject of her dissertation, which she successfully defended earlier this year.

Her interest in monetary debates goes back to her master’s program, also at Paris 1. Then a bit of serendipity entered the picture.

“Just as I was finishing my master’s, I came across a book on the Reconstruction period by a French historian named Nicolas Barreyre and titled Gold and Freedom. That book got me excited—can I say passionate?—about the greenback debate in the US. Should US dollar bills be convertible into gold? Or should they exist as they do today, as fiat money?”

Duke, Sofia says, is the perfect place for her to continue her work. The library has a collection of papers from the treasury department of the Confederate States of America, and several scholars at Duke work on her subject. In addition, the University of North Carolina has an extensive collection of materials related to the American South.

This is Sofia’s first time at Duke and the HOPE Center. But as a historian of economics, she has conversed with dozens of scholars who have passed through the Center.

“It’s kind of a rite of passage now, completing a fellowship at the HOPE Center,” she says.

Sofia will be at Duke until June.