NEH Chairman William R. Ferris

(December 1, 1997)

Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

As an author, folklorist, filmmaker and academic administrator, William R. Ferris has compiled a distinguished record of achievement and leadership in the humanities during a career spanning nearly three decades.

Before becoming chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in November 1997, Dr. Ferris served for 18 years as founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Under his leadership, the University of Mississippi developed the most comprehensive southern studies curriculum in the nation, and the center, with an interdisciplinary approach incorporating popular, folk, historical and literary subjects, attained national recognition as a model for regional studies centers. In 1993 the center was named a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the United Nations.

A professor of anthropology and a prolific author, Dr. Ferris spearheaded the creation of the best-selling Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published in 1989. Containing entries on every aspect of southern culture and widely recognized as a major reference work linking popular, folk and academic cultures, the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In Russia, eastern Europe and Australia it has been used as a tool for understanding cultural and social diversity.

Dr. Ferris's scholarship covers the fields of folklore, American literature, music and photography. Among his books are Ray Lum's Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men (1992), Local Color (1982), Images of the South: Visits with Eudora Welty and Walker Evans (1978) and Blues from the Delta (1970). His films include Mississippi Blues (1983), which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. Among his sound recordings are Highway 61 Blues: James 'Son' Thomas (1983), Bothered All the Time (1983), Genesis: The Beginnings of Rock (1974) and Blues from the Delta (1970). He was a consultant to the 1985 movies The Color Purple and Crossroads, the latter about blues music, and for nearly a decade until 1994 he hosted Highway 61, a weekly blues music program that airs on Mississippi Public Radio.

Among the cultural programs Dr. Ferris has established at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture are the Oxford Conference for the Book, the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, and conferences on Elvis Presley, civil rights and the law, and civil rights and the media. The center also sponsors seminars for teachers, educational tours of the South, traveling exhibitions and musical performances. Drawing on the world's largest blues archives at the University of Mississippi, the center reaches wide audiences with its magazine Living Blues. Research conducted at the center has resulted in a wide range of audio recordings, films, scholarly papers and books.

Dr. Ferris's honors include the presidentially bestowed Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, the American Library Association's Dartmouth Medal, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and France's Chevalier and Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters. He has also been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Before coming to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1979, Dr. Ferris taught at Yale University (1972-79) and at Jackson State University in Mississippi (1970-72). He has M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in English literature from Northwestern University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1942, Dr. Ferris is married to Marcie Cohen Ferris.

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