November 18, 1999
The past is never very far behind us. To Larry Powell, professor of history, that's a good thing. In his roles as teacher and scholar he has revisited the past to gain a notion of who we were. As a social and political activist he has looked back in order to see who we are.
For his efforts as a scholar and educator, Powell will receive the 1999 Louisiana Humanist of the Year Award that will be presented to him in April by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH).
"This is our highest award to acknowledge the work of a scholar, particularly a scholar in the humanities who has made his work accessible and meaningful to the broad general public," says Michael Sartisky, president of the LEH.
According to Sartisky, the award, though presented annually, is a cumulative recognition of its recipient's work. Since he arrived at Tulane in 1978, Powell has been an educator of not only Tulane students but also to a constituency that comprises a wide cross section of Louisiana demographics.
In 1990-91, as leading organizer of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, Powell sought to inform the electorate of the background and history of then-senatorial candidate David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan with ties to the white supremacist movement.
In 1993, Powell helped found the Southern Institute for Education and Research, a non-profit race and ethnic relations center located on the Tulane campus. He has also organized two major civil rights conferences held at Tulane: The Continuing American Dilemma (1989) and When the Future was the Past (1996).
Since last June, Powell has been director of the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program (CAP), which uses university resources to help public-housing residents achieve self-sufficiency. For the last six years, Powell has worked on the history of the family of a local survivor of the Holocaust. The book is scheduled to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in early 2000.
"The historian Eugene Genovese once wrote that it was impossible to be both a good scholar and a good activist," says Lance Hill, a cofounder and executive director of the Southern Institute. "Larry's life proves that wrong."
Hill, a former graduate student of Powell's and a fellow civil rights activist, says that Powell's work as a citizen activist to counter the Duke threat and his other efforts to link the academy to community needs have all been exemplary and did not prevent him from producing an extraordinary book on the Holocaust.
Powell, who demurs from talking about the award outside of saying that it came from out of the blue, is more interested in discussing his forthcoming book, entitled Troubled Memory. The book, which Powell originally intended to be an account of the stop Duke movement, gradually became the story of one person in that movement, a New Orleanian named Ann Levy, and her family's struggle to survive the Lodz and Warsaw ghettoes before arriving in the United States.
"I knew of her because she had confronted David Duke at a Simon Wiesenthal exhibit at the state capitol in May 1990," says Powell. While documenting her story for a chapter in the book, Powell became intrigued at how this very demure and non-aggressive person stepped out of character to confront Duke. After reading memoirs by Levy's mother that recounted the family's experiences, Powell became hooked.
"This was a great story: This family that had survived all these horrors comes to the United States and into this segregated society to see some of the same things happening, including the emergence of neo-Nazis, first in the form of George Lincoln Rockwell [in the 1960s] and then Rockwell's protege, David Duke. I wanted to tell the story of why this woman confronted this man by showing how it was a product of this terrible experience."
Powell believes that like Levy, the Louisiana electorate, when choosing a much-scorned politician like Edwin Edwards over David Duke in the 1992 governors race, was also informed and motivated by a sense of history. "We remember World War II," says Powell. "We took seriously the suggestion that this guy was a Nazi and we knew what that stood for. It was a moral rejection-a sense that we've been here and done that. We knew where Nazism leads and we were offended."
While writing his own dissertation, Hill was often reminded by Powell that history is as much an art as it is a science and that the product of scholarship should be eminently readable.
"In Troubled Memory, Powell has followed his own advice," says Hill, who has read the manuscript. "There aren't a lot of historians who produce books that are both scholarly and intelligible, let alone interesting. This is a book that scholars and the general public can both enjoy. It's how history should be written."
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