Scholars Converge


A group of professors from across the country who specialize in history, sociology, literature, political science and anthropology is at MCLA through July 9 to participate in the 2011 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute, "The Role of Place in African-American Biography," as they explore local African-American history with nationally recognized scholars.

The brainchild of MCLA history professor Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, the four-week-long institute will teach these college and university faculty - selected in a competitive process - how to find people local to their own communities whom they can connect to a national theme to include in their classroom curriculum.

"When they are talking about the Civil War, they will start with a local figure. It will be the same thing with the Harlem Renaissance or with slavery or anything like that. So the students can see the local aspect and actually deal with primary sources right there in their community," Jones-Sneed explained.

The project is funded by the third major grant awarded to Jones-Sneed from the NEH.

In addition to hearing from 12 nationally recognized scholars, the 25 attendees will work on individual projects, whether it is a syllabus for a new course, an article for a journal or part of a book manuscript.

"They'll also get to interact with other scholars who are interested in the same thing that they're interested in. It tends to be a very enriching time because a lot of times - especially for faculty who work at a four-year college where the teaching load is very heavy - they don't get the time to just work on their own projects. NEH gives these people a chance to do this," Jones-Sneed said.

"I'm really excited to be a part of this," she continued. "I'm a learner, like they are. This is something that I've been interested in for over a dozen years," she continued. "This is a great way for them to bounce some ideas off of people for what they are working on. It's going to be a very intensive - but very fruitful - and enjoyable four weeks together."

Among the Berkshire County African-American figures institute attendees will study are Samuel Harris, civil war soldier; W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist; Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman, who legally obtained her freedom from slavery; and Agrippa Hull, a patriot of the American Revolutionary War.

Jones-Sneed and her co-directors - Dr. Robert Paynter of UMASS-Amherst and Dr. Richard Courage of Westchester Community College - will work on their own projects, alongside institute participants. She is writing a biography on Samuel Harrison. Paynter's anthropological work focuses on the boyhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois in Great Barrington, Mass., and Courage will examine the work of a writer from the Harlem Renaissance.

Jones-Sneed said this project marks a milestone in her career.

"It certainly is a highlight," she explained. "The first NEH grant was for an 18-month curriculum development project for area Berkshire teachers to include African-Americans in their lesson plans. We worked with about 25 high school teachers on that. The next grant was working with community college and high school teachers on the Harlem Renaissance. This third one is one of the premiere NEH grants that you can get for an institute or a seminar. I have always wanted to do something like this."

Jones-Sneed is the co-director of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, and a board member of MassHumanities and the Samuel Harrison Society. She has directed two other NEH grants, "The Shaping Role of Place in African American Biography," in 2006, and "Of Migrations and Renaissances: Harlem/NY and South Side/Chicago, 1915-75," in 2008. Both were "We the People" projects.

For more information, go to neh.