January 17, 2002
It took a year and a half of work, but the end result was worth the wait. In December, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Tulane a $379,000 implementation grant to establish the Deep South Regional Humanities Center.
The center, one of nine designated regional humanities centers across the country, is charged with promoting education and research on the region through academic conferences, research fellowships, teacher training, lectures, performances, exhibitions and tours.
“All of it has the express purpose of promoting research, learning and understanding about the history and culture of the Deep South,” says Sylvia Frey, professor of history and center co-director.
In winning the designation, Tulane was selected over the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Last year, the NEH picked Tulane and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture to receive $50,000 planning grants to develop a center to serve Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
A planning group consisting of Frey, Southern Institute director Lance Hill, associate professor of French Tom Klingler, associate professor of English Rebecca Mark, history graduate student Michael Mizell-Nelson and professor of history and center co-director Larry Powell—with the cooperation and support of many more at Tulane, in the community and throughout the region—labored 18 months to make the center a reality.
“Because our leading competitor was a well-established center already, we had to act as a center instead of just a planning group,” Frey says. “So we started functioning as a center. Among the things we did was organize and host international conferences that called attention to the region.”
The group organized three international conferences in the planning period that examined issues explicit to the Deep South. Two conferences grew out of the UNESCO-sponsored Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project, an international network of universities, archives, museums and schools devoted to teaching K-12 students about the history of slavery in the Atlantic World.
The third was the Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World Conference, which focused on efforts to achieve racial justice and human rights. Unlike traditional academic conferences, the center’s conferences brought together research scholars and K-12 educators.
“They were academic conferences, but reconceptualized, so you had scholars from all over the Atlantic world and teachers from the region participating,” Frey says. “There was a dialogue between researchers and educators that is not at all typical of academic conferences.”
The center also endeavored to build public outreach components into events. Frey cites the appearance of five Freedom Riders at the Tulane-Cambridge Conference last April. “That was an emotional high point of the academic conference for everybody,” Frey says. “We’ll never organize another conference without trying to build into it something that adds emotional power to an academic conference.”
Another program of the center that has attracted attention is Egghead Tours, a research-based initiative for the promotion of cultural tourism modeled after New York’s Big Onion Walking Tours. Graduate student Michael Mizell-Nelson, the center’s media coordinator, designed a tour on the history of the streetcar, graduate student Katy Coyle took participants on a tour of the former Storyville district, and graduate student J. Mark Souther led a tour focussing on the history of tourism in the French Quarter.
The tours debuted in November for the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association and garnered rave reviews from participants. Frey says one of the center’s current projects is the development of a Web site in conjunction with the Louisiana Purchase’s bicentennial. The site is a cooperative effort of Louisiana State University, the New Orleans Notarial Archives, the Louisiana State Museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the University of Paris VII.
Tulane is in good company nationally. Other universities to receive the regional humanities center designation include the University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin–Madison, University of California–Davis, Temple and Rutgers. The $379,000 implementation grant represents a significantly scaled-down version of the NEH’s original plan for the centers.
Initially, the NEH planned to award each center $5 million over five years to be matched by the universities on a three-to-one basis. In the wake of Sept. 11 and the nation’s sagging economy, the NEH abandoned that plan in favor of a one-time grant to the centers to be matched on a three-to-one basis. Frey says she expects most of the funds to be raised through private sources.
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