Skip to main content

Introductory Remarks at The Future of the African American Past Conference

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The Future of the African American Past Conference Washington, DC
United States

May 20, 2016

Good morning and welcome.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to be one of the sponsors of this important conference, which takes stock of where we are in the landscape of African-American history and ponders where this important work might be headed in the future.  I want to thank my colleagues at NEH who worked on this grant, and especially former Deputy Chair Carole Watson for her commitment to the conference, and for ensuring that NEH is there alongside the American Historical Association, the Museum of African American History and Culture, and History in making it happen.  

As many of you know, NEH was a sponsor of the AHA’s landmark 1983 conference on the state of African-American history. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it’s fitting that we contribute to this new assessment of the field.

The study of African-American history and culture has been a major interest of the Endowment since our founding in 1965. Over the course of our history, NEH has granted over $171 million to nearly three thousand projects in these important fields. NEH funds have supported scholars documenting and interpreting the African-American experience from the shores of Jamestown and the cane fields of Louisiana to the jazz clubs and artist studios of Harlem, the picket lines of Memphis, and the streets of Baltimore.

Starting with research grants in the 1970s, the Endowment sponsored some of the foundational scholarship in the field of African-American history. NEH funds resulted in biographies of remarkable individuals such as Sojourner Truth, August Wilson, Marcus Garvey, Bayard Rustin, Harriet Tubman, and Thurgood Marshall. NEH awards have sustained institutions across the nation, from the Studio Museum in Harlem, to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans. The Endowment made possible major traveling exhibits of visual artists Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, to name but a few.  

Other notable NEH-funded projects include:

  • Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is an on-line, searchable archive of records from 35,000 transatlantic slave ship voyages between 1501 and 1875; allowing users to track the journeys of more than 67,000 people kidnapped into slavery.

  • Hundreds of NEH summer institutes for school teachers and college faculty have transformed the teaching of American history. Seminars have covered topics as varied as the history of Reconstruction and the southern civil rights movement to the music and culture of the Mississippi Delta and resistance to slavery in the tropical Atlantic.

  • The first seven volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Once completed, the project will be a 14-volume, comprehensive collection of King's most significant letters, sermons, speeches, and published and unpublished manuscripts. The collection documents King’s personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey from his youth in Atlanta to his rise as an international spokesman for civil rights.

  • In 2014 the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis, used NEH funds to open a major permanent exhibit and site reinterpretation. Beginning in the 17th century, the exhibit incorporates recent scholarship, archival film, artifacts, and immersive technology to illuminate the complex history of African Americans. 

  • The first major retrospective exhibition celebrating the work and legacy of African-American photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris opened in 2011 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Teenie Harris served as photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier. Today, his photographic archive—preserved and exhibited with NEH support—comprises one of the most complete portraits ever created of the 20th-century urban African-American experience.

  • Watched by nearly 7 million PBS viewers, the documentary film Freedom Riders chronicles the experiences of more than 400 Americans—black and white—who risked their lives and endured violence and in some cases, imprisonment, to challenge segregated transportation in 1961.

  • At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, NEH supported early archaeological excavation as well as the reinterpretation of the landscape of slavery along Mulberry Row, shedding light on the stories of 130 enslaved people. Additional grants made possible the permanent exhibitions at the new visitor center. Our grants have helped this UNESCO World Heritage Site bring ground-breaking scholarship about what Jefferson called “this deplorable entanglement” of slavery to the American people.

  • When the Digital Public Library of America was still in the early planning stages, several major NEH awards enabled it to grow into a resource where the public can access nearly 12 million books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, and other riches of our cultural heritage. Through state and regional hubs, partner institutions continue to contribute powerful documentation of African-American history on the local level.

As important as all of this work has been, we know that there is much, much more to do. And especially during the last 18 months or so, we’ve learned once again how important history, and African-American history in particular, is to the future of the country. With this important civic purpose in mind, I want to thank all of the presenters and participants for their contributions. I know that these days of discussion and reflection will be enormously valuable.

Thank you.