She got the idea for “Libertie” a decade ago, when she was working at the Weeksville Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to a free Black community that was founded in Brooklyn in 1838. Greenidge was collecting stories from people whose ancestors had lived there, and tracked down a woman named Ellen Holly, who was the first Black actress to have a lead, recurring role on daytime TV, in “One Life to Live.” Holly spoke about her great-grandmother Susan Smith McKinney Steward, whose daughter Anna married a son of the Episcopal archbishop of Haiti and moved with him to Port-au-Prince, but came to regret it.
Greenidge filed the family’s saga away in her mind, thinking she had the premise for a novel. When she got a writing fellowship, she was able to quit her side jobs and immerse herself in the research the novel required. She read old newspapers, political tracts, sermons, memoirs, hymns and census records. Occasionally, she turned to Kerri — she affectionately calls her older sister a “history nerd” — for advice. “She’s a human Wikipedia,” she said. “How could you not?”
The resulting story feels both epic and intimate. As she reimagined the lives of the doctor and her daughter, Greenidge wove in other historical figures and events. In one horrific scene, Libertie and her mother tend to Black families who fled Manhattan during the New York City draft riots. In the novel’s opening chapter, Libertie sees her mother revive a man who arrives at their home sealed in a coffin, brought by a woman who works on the Underground Railroad. Greenidge based the woman on Henrietta Duterte, a Black abolitionist in Philadelphia who used her funeral home to help people escape.
Greenidge also drew on her own family history, and her experience of being a new mother. Her daughter, Mavis, was born days after she finished a second draft of the book, and is now 18 months old. She finished revisions while living in a multigenerational household with her own mother and sisters.
“Mother-daughter relationships are like the central relationships in my life,” she said. “One of the things I was interested in was motherhood as this place of self-creation.”
She took inspiration from Toni Morrison, who once described motherhood as “the most liberating thing that ever happened to me.”