Dr. Lauren N. Henley

October 8, 2020
A Q&A with a new assistant professor of leadership studies

Dr. Lauren N. Henley joined the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in August as an assistant professor of leadership studies. Her scholarship focuses on violent crime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, she considers how Black women and girls became both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes in the rural industrial South. This semester she is teaching two sections of Leadership and the Humanities (LDST 101).

How did you become interested in the history of violent crime, particularly as it relates to Black women and girls?

I developed a love of African-American history as an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. I became really interested in the history of law, but instead of becoming a lawyer, I decided to become a historian and completed both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history at University of Texas at Austin. I joke that as a historian, all my subjects—both perpetrators and victims—are dead, so the stakes are much lower than they are for lawyers.

Ideas about deviance have always interested me. Deviance tells us what society defines as normal. I started studying young Black girls who were sentenced to reformatories, girls who were destined for pregnancy, prostitution, and prison. This is just potent language for girls who didn’t fit within Black middle-class ideals of respectability and whose parents didn’t have enough money to give them an education.

What is the focus of your current research?

I am researching a Black teen female serial killer who committed her first murder in 1909. She confessed her crimes and received a life sentence—a sentence of 10 years at that time.

I use a historical narrative in telling her story and that of other serial killers, relying on the perspective of how people living at the time experienced history. They had fragments of evidence that became available over time. Time is the marker in which serial killers commit their crimes. It takes successive murders before people understand that a serial killer is at work.

How does your scholarship relate to leadership studies?

I am fascinated by the idea of a serial killer as a leader. Is she killing in the name of religion? Is it murder, sacrifice, or ritual? Are leaders and serial killers born evil? To what extent does the environment shape leaders and serial killers? What happens when we take all the positive attributes of leaders and apply them in less than ideal circumstances? Was Jim Jones a leader? For many people who followed him to Jonestown he was. How do we understand effective leadership wielded by a bad person?

Leadership is a negotiation of power, and serial killers hold power over their victims. We often know a serial killer’s name but not the names of their victims.

What brought you to University of Richmond?

Having grown up in Mechanicsville, Va., University of Richmond was the first campus I ever set foot on—at age two for my dad’s graduation from Richmond’s MBA program! As a teen, I was eager to get out of Richmond; but after spending time in St. Louis and Austin, I am thrilled to be back in Richmond and teaching at the University of Richmond.