Waking Up to Humanities

October 6, 2003

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

A Southern historian and Mississippi native, Randy Sparks, throughout his career, always placed Tulane high on the list of institutions where he'd most like to teach. And now that he is here as associate professor of history, Sparks says he indeed feels "lucky."

humanitiesSparks came to Tulane three years ago from a faculty position at the College of Charleston. He is the author of Religion in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) and The Two Princes of Calabar, forthcoming next year from Harvard University Press.

And as of July 1, he added another title--director of the Deep South Regional Humanities Center--to his credits along with an extra helping of responsibility.

Sparks takes over the center's reins from former director Sylvia Frey, who retired as history professor this summer. Tulane landed the center in 2001 in a National Endowment for the Humanities Regional Centers Initiative competition, anticipating generous funding.

But with a change of administration in Washington, from Democratic to Republican, came a change of heart. The initiative was dropped, and major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities collapsed--from a projected $5 million to less than $400,000. This turnabout in funding leaves Sparks with a significant fundraising task ahead.

He, however, isn't daunted. He says the center is "dynamic and exciting. It has real potential for improving the understanding of the humanities in the public and within institutions." The center has already raised more than half a million dollars in foundation money and research grants in addition to the initial endowment funding, and Sparks hopes to garner even more support from individual donors.

As a sign that the center is here to stay, it has a new home in Uptown Square, where staff members moved into new offices last month from a site in Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Shana Walton, associate director, and Jennifer Mitchel, assistant director, are eager to pursue further collaboration with educational and cultural institutions, the local community and Tulane faculty members.

Center projects include fellowships to encourage the development of courses in Southern studies. Last spring the center funded a seminar led by Supriya Nair, associate professor of English, and Adeline Masquelier, associate professor of anthropology, on domesticity--"A very Southern topic," says Mitchel. The center also has formed a consortium for the study of Creole culture with Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., and it is developing a companion exhibition on Southern foodways for the Smithsonian Institution's traveling culinary history exhibit in 2004-06.

Before she joined the center in October 2002, Walton directed the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, where she ran a program to collect oral histories of World War II veterans. A wealth of memories exists in these histories.

"Anytime people tell their personal stories, it is powerful and meaningful," Walton says. The Southern Miss archives, as well as those at the D-Day Museum and the T. Harry Williams Oral History Project at Louisiana State University, are full of the raw stuff of history and are especially important because Southerners served in World War II in disproportionate numbers than people from other regions.

In one of her first center projects, Walton set out to make these Southern veterans' stories accessible to the public. She instigated the production of the center's newly released audio CD, Waking up to War: The Shock of Pearl Harbor. The CD has snippets of Southern Americans' recollections of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, interspersed with President Franklin Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech along with historical interpretation of America's isolationism and unpreparedness for war.

To promote the CD, the center is planning a half-day conference open to the community on Nov. 15. It won't be stuffy or overly academic, Sparks promises. Three historians who came of age during the World War II era will discuss how the war influenced them as scholars and how it shaped the South. Southern women will talk about the home front. And the Pfister Sisters will sing 1940s songs. Plus Tulane will salute its alumni who served in the war.

"Americans revere and respect veterans," says Walton. And time is running short for World War II veterans. Sparks agrees. "That generation is reaching the age where it's important to do this now rather than later."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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