13 JUNE-9 JULY 2011


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Dear Colleague,

Thank you for your interest in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on "The Role of Place in African American Biography."  The Institute will be held on the campus of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams, Massachusetts and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts from June 13 through July 9, 2011. I invite your application to participate in this exciting endeavor.

At this four week NEH Summer Institute we will  engage in deep, sustained collegial study of recent research and scholarship on the experiences of African Americans in New England from colonial days to the early twentieth century. We will work with leading humanities scholars and veteran local history researchers in an interdisciplinary exploration of the African American experience in New England.  Participants will engage in an intensive program of reading and discussion, reviewing recent scholarship and local historical research; design individual projects that tie regional with national history, biographical with historical inquiry; and explore primary source materials and cultural artifacts at archival repositories and historic sites in western Massachusetts.

Texts will also include relevant memoirs, biographies, fiction, poetry, oral histories, films, and cultural artifacts. Through exploration of individual biographies and the social history of blacks in New England, the institute will engage three broad themes: 1) the role of local and regional geography, history and culture in shaping the lives of representative African Americans; 2) the potential of African American biography to illuminate events and movements of enduring national significance; and 3) the powerful synergy of local and regional history research, biographical investigation, and humanities education. We feel that having a mix of scholars at the Institute will enrich our discussions of the texts.

The content is organized topically and chronologically into two major parts: 1) Slavery, Gradual Emancipation, and Abolitionism in New England; and 2) Berkshire County and the New Negro. The first part roughly encompasses the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period during which Black Yankees, according to William Pierson, formed a distinctive American subculture. The second part focuses on the first three decades of the twentieth century, narrowing from the entire region (with an emphasis on rural areas) to the particularly informative connections between Berkshire County and Harlem.  Individuals whose lives and works are examined include W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, James VanDerZee, Harriet E. Wilson, Lucy Terry, Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, and Agrippa Hull.


Now to matters logistical. The Institute will run for four weeks, from Sunday June 13 through Friday July 9. Registration and a welcome dinner will take place on the first Sunday. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays of each week, there will be two sessions each day, two in the morning, one in the late afternoon. There will be visits to historic sites related to the topics of the week. Each Friday will be free for reading and study, and participants may do as they like on the weekends. (The Berkshires is a rich cultural area and is about 3 hours from Boston, 3-4 hours from NYC, and four hours from Montreal.) There will be a closing dinner on Thursday, July 8, and the Institute will officially close after the morning session on Friday July 9. 

The institute will meet from Monday, June 13, to Saturday, July 9 with a welcome dinner on the evening of June 12 hosted by the Williams College Africana Studies Department in Williamstown. Four days each week will be devoted to morning colloquia (9-11:00 am) and afternoon sessions (1-3 pm) with visiting professors as well as travel to locations in western Massachusetts to explore primary source materials and cultural artifacts at archival repositories and to see first-hand how local African American history is being researched, preserved, and interpreted at historically important sites. One day a week will be set aside for research and study.  There will be guest faculty each week of the Institute:


Weeks 1 and 2: Slavery, Gradual Emancipation, and Abolitionism in New England

In the opening session on June 13, the co-directors will sketch their vision for the program and give participants an opportunity to describe their expectations and raise pertinent questions or concerns. They will also distribute a special institute reader composed of primary sources and pertinent articles. The balance of the morning and part of the afternoon session will be led by Professors Charles Dew and Leslie Brown, both faculty members at Williams College. Dew is a nationally recognized expert on antebellum US history and slavery, and Brown specializes in African American and Public history. They will review the historiography on slavery and emancipation and the very different conditions of servitude that pertained between and within regions of the country.

On Tuesday, Joanne Pope Melish (University of Kentucky) will focus on enslaved and free blacks in New England, reviewing a series of regional studies beginning with Lorenzo Greene's 1942 classic The Negro in Colonial New England. She will describe the history of gradual emancipation through different legal mechanisms and in different years, state by state. She will explore the problematic construction of New England as the antithesis of the slave South, in light of the actual experience of blacks in the iconic "white village" examined by Joseph Conforti. Finally, Melish will discuss her ongoing research on the region's evolving racial order and the manner in which its racial ideology was encoded between 1780 and 1880 in a rhetoric that abhorred chattel slavery while rendering free blacks marginal or even invisible.

On Wednesday, James T. Campbell, professor of history at Stanford University, will discuss the central role of New England's mercantile centers and the involvement of its colleges in regional slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. While on the faculty of Brown University, he chaired a committee that studied the connections of that university's founders with the slave trade.

Independent scholars and local historians David Levinson and Emilie Piper will lead the morning colloquium on Thursday, discussing their new monograph on Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, whose successful suit in 1781 was one of two key legal cases that abolished slavery in Massachusetts. On Friday, the group will visit the Colonel John Ashley House, where the Sheffield Declaration, an early petition of grievances against British rule, was drafted in 1773 and where Mumbet was enslaved for nearly four decades.

The first two days of the second week will be led by Gary Nash (UCLA), author or co-author of a number of essential studies of early American history, including two that illuminate the role of blacks in the Revolution: The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution and Friends of Liberty. The latter details the friendship between Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Polish military engineer and colonel in the Continental Army, and his black orderly, Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge. Their four-year connection enhanced Hull's status as the best-known black in Berkshire County and underscored his determination to establish himself as landowner and full citizen of the new republic. Nash will also explore the challenges of biographical research on African Americans.

The Wednesday session will be led by biographer and English professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina(Dartmouth College) and Jerrianne Boggis, director of New Hampshire's Harriet Wilson Project. Gerzina will discuss the subjects of her latest book, Mr. and Mrs. Prince: Lucy Terry, the first known African American poet, and her husband Abijah Prince. They were former slaves who became landowners in rural Vermont and have gone down in legend for their notably protracted and successful use of the courts to defend their legal rights. Gerzina will focus on both the content of her book and the methodology, describing how very differently this seasoned biographer and veteran of university libraries had to proceed in constructing the individual and family histories of two New England blacks. Boggis will discuss Wilson's Our Nig and its significance as both the first known novel by an African American and a text powerfully illuminating the early black experience in New England.

On Thursday, Vanderbilt University historian Dennis C. Dickerson will provide a transition from the early national period through the Civil War and Reconstruction by examining the lives of two remarkable black New England clergymen: Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) and Samuel Harrison (1818-1900).  Connecticut native Haynes is believed to be the first black man ordained by any religious sect in North America. He served as minister to Congregational churches in Connecticut and Vermont, becoming known for his oratory and his strong opposition to slavery. Harrison, who served as pastor of Pittsfield's Second Congregational Church for forty years, was working for the National Freedmen's Relief Society in August 1863 when Governor John Andrew appointed him chaplain of the 54th Massachusetts, the first official all-Black regiment in the U.S. armed forces. Harrison was a powerful orator, writer and local Republican political leader, strongly pressing the case for racial equality until his death in the last year of the century. On Friday, this first part of the institute ends with viewing of a PBS American Experience documentary on Harrison's life followed by visits to the Second Congregational Church and Harrison's home in Pittsfield, which is being restored as an archival museum.  

Weeks 3 and 4: Berkshire County and the New Negro

On Monday, June 27, the first day of the second part of the institute, the three co-directors will provide an overview from different disciplinary perspectives of the multifaceted links between Berkshire County and Harlem. Frances Jones-Sneed will discuss what ongoing local history research has revealed about personal and familial connections between the black culture capital and the rural Massachusetts county some 150 miles to its north. Robert Paynter will situate this history in the growing body of knowledge about the material culture of blacks in western New England in the late nineteenth century, gathered through archaeological research at various sites, including the Du Bois homesite in Great Barrington. Richard Courage will consider a number of short literary texts or textual excerpts by James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other black writers to explore the presence and significance of pastoral forms in Harlem Renaissance literature. Each presenter will pose a series of exploratory questions about the relationship between black metropolis and predominantly white hinterland posed by the Harlem/Berkshire County connection.  

Eminent historian David Levering Lewis will lead the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions. He will first examine the origins of the modern civil rights movement in the NAACP, founded in 1909, and its precursor, the all-black Niagara Movement, which first met on the Canadian side of the Falls in 1905. He will discuss the key role played by Du Bois in both movements and provide essential biographical background on Du Bois as "Berkshire prodigy," young scholar, and race-proud New Negro, in the process examining the shaping role of place in the most important individual, white or black, to emerge from Berkshire County.  A second session will be devoted to discussion of the nature of the Harlem Renaissance as a social and political movement--a thesis Lewis first advanced in 1979 in When Harlem Was in Vogue--and to examination of the subsequent scholarly currents represented by such works as Cheryl Wall's Women of the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker's Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Ann Douglas' Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, and George Hutchinson's The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White.

On Thursday, Deborah Willis, one of the nation's leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture, will make a presentation based on her book, VANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee, illustrated with his early photographs of people and places in Lenox and his iconic images of such 1920s Harlem luminaries as Du Bois, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and Zora Neale Hurston. Willis will place VanDerZee in a tradition of black photographic masters that includes Addison Scurlock, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarava, and discuss his life and career as instances of the biographical role of photography as a powerful storytelling device and instrument of collective and individual memory. On Friday, the group will have the option to visit the VanDerZee house in Lenox and the Stockbridge Library History Room, which contains a number of his early photographs and a portrait of Agrippa Hull.

After the July 4 holiday, the last week of the institute will convene on Tuesday with the first of two sessions led by noted Harlem Renaissance scholar Amritjit Singh, who will approach the New Negro movement from a literary perspective. He will first discuss such prose works as Du Bois' collection Souls of Black Folk, James Weldon Johnson's novel Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man, and Du Bois' novel Dark Princess as exemplars of New Negro aesthetics and ideology. A subsequent session will explore the manner in which Du Bois and Crisis literary editor Jessie Fauset promoted black creative artists and the tensions between Du Bois' notion of art as propaganda and the aesthetic inclinations of such younger writers as Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Thursday session will take place at the Du Bois Library of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and include an introduction to the Du Bois Papers and other resources. The group will have the option to travel to the Du Bois homesite for an onsite talk by institute co-director Robert Paynter, who has led a number of archaeological surveys and field schools there. The morning of Friday, July 9, will wrap up the institute with brief reports on projects in progress and written evaluations of the entire program.

The Summer Institute will be held in Murdock Hall, the oldest building on the campus of MCLA for the first two weeks, the next week at the Sawyer Library at Williams College, and the last week in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois. NEH summer institute scholars will have privileges at the MCLA Library, the Williams College Library, and the UMASS-Amherst library that has substantial holdings in African American history and culture and the papers of W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition they will also have access to the regional branch of the National Archives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Participants will be provided affordable housing in the Flagg Townhouse Apartment Complex.

 Each apartment has a full kitchen, a living/dining area and private bathroom facilities. Rooms within each apartment are designed to accommodate from one to three people. The Townhouses that we will use has been reserved exclusively for our Summer Institute Fellows and is only about a two minute walk from Murdock Hall. Shuttle buses will be available throughout the Institute to transport Scholars between classroom sites and to the library after class sessions.  For those who stay on campus, free parking is available as well as gym privileges. There are many places to eat near campus and transportation to the area grocery stores will be possible for those who choose not to bring their own cars. All Fellows will be able to use the libraries and will have wireless access to the internet via the MCLA system while on campus. Institute staff will work closely with scholars who choose not to live on campus to find alternate housing in the area.

Participation is limited to twenty-five applicants. Three spaces will be reserved for qualified graduate students in the humanities or social sciences. Applicants who are selected to participate in the Summer Institute will be paid a stipend of $3300, half payable on arrival at the Institute, and the other half payable in the third week of the program.  Stipends are considered taxable income. Fellows who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the project must refund a pro-rata portion of the stipend. 

If you wish to apply, application information and guidelines are available HERE. Your completed application should arrive no later than March 1, 2011. We prefer that all materials be submitted by e-mail attachment to with the subject line "NEH Application." If you choose instead to submit your materials by regular mail, the mailing address is:

Frances Jones-Sneed, Ph.D.
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
375 Church Street
North Adams, MA 01247-4124

I hope that you will agree that those of us who are organizing the Summer Institute have put together an intellectually stimulating program. We look forward to your application.