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Keeping the Promise: Reese and Sparks

April 5, 2005

Tulanian Staff
Michael DeMocker

Thomas F. Reese, Executive Director of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies: In January 1999, 35 years after graduating, I returned to Tulane following a career at the University of Texas-Austin and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles. My predecessor, Richard Greenleaf, left to Tulane an enviable legacy -- one of the best-respected programs in Latin American Studies in the nation. So I was delighted to return to my alma mater to continue to advance the excellence of this unique asset.

tulspr_05_reese_1Our work at the Stone Center is multifaceted, but much of it focuses on Tulane's faculty as the keystone upon which strong undergraduate and graduate programs rest. Much of the center's work involves fostering awareness of shared personal and intellectual interests and developing and managing financial resources to support these goals. For me, administration and scholarship are two sides of a single coin.

For us to advance Tulane's academic potential, my staff and I must possess a deep knowledge of the scholarly work of our faculty and of our impressive holdings in the Latin American Library. In addition, I must be sensitive to the "chemistry" between working scholars because you never know what catalyst will spark new possibilities. Tulane's Stone Center is unique for many reasons.

First and foremost, there is the historical longevity of Tulane's scholarly investments in Latin America that predates even the establishment of Tulane's prestigious Middle American Research Institute in 1924. This synergetic relationship with our neighbors to the south has not only built a reputation of excellence for Tulane's Latin American Studies, but also has attracted a critical mass of faculty.

Indeed, Latin Americanists constitute close to 40 percent of regular faculty in 10 departments. Classes with Latin American subject matter are strongly represented in the curriculum and students in the social sciences and humanities are constantly exposed to our international programs and events. A second unique quality of Latin American Studies at Tulane is a byproduct of the link at Tulane between critical mass and intimate scale on this relatively compact campus where the potential for forming a well-integrated intellectual community is a real and exciting challenge. A third quality that makes working at Tulane so compelling is also one of the most difficult to describe.

I would say simply that I sense among Tulane's Latin Americanists personal qualities and interests that are typical of so many who are attracted to Tulane and New Orleans. These peculiarities and passions contribute in many unforeseen ways to the creation of a collegial and engaged faculty of Latin Americanists who thrive in this delightfully unique environment.

Connecting what we do at the university to what we do in the wider community is natural for us, and it has been a mission long-shared by members of the Zemurray and Stone families, who for four generations have supported this superb undertaking that for me is continually and wonderfully rewarding. 

Randy Sparks, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Deep South Regional Humanities Center: For a native of the South and a Southern historian, Tulane provides an ideal environment for personal and professional growth. The university has a long history of excellence in Southern history. Its location in one of the South's most historic and important cities, its rich archival resources -- especially the Amistad Collection and the Hogan Jazz Archive -- its community of scholars, and now the Deep South Humanities Center make this an ideal home for me.

tulspr_05_sparks_1When I arrived at Tulane five years ago, I was enthused by the possibilities of the humanities center because I supported the insight behind its planning. I came from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where I helped build a program focused on the Lowcountry and its connections to the Atlantic World. I became convinced that to fully understand Southern history we needed to have a broad vision that looked at the interactions among Native Americans, Africans and Europeans in shaping the region's complex history.

The talented Tulane faculty members who created the center shared this understanding of Southern history and culture. What else, after all, could explain a city like New Orleans? No place in the South -- and few places in America -- better express the rich multicultural history of our nation. New Orleans has always exerted a strong pull on me.

Since childhood I've been a frequent visitor. Its exotic sounds and tastes, its peculiar architecture and religious traditions were different from my roots in rural, Protestant Mississippi. But in another way, the city always seemed familiar and welcoming -- as it always has been for Southerners who long to escape their small-town lives but somehow hang onto something familiar. Exotic, but not too exotic. The spirit of New Orleans has helped shape my work.

My most recent book, The Two Princes of Calabar, tells the story of two young African slave traders caught up in a journey around the Atlantic World. In a larger sense, theirs is the story of the connections among Africa, America and Europe. My understanding of the process that shaped the Atlantic World has been deeply influenced by a city that so perfectly embodies it. Another way to explore those connections is through the outreach work I direct at the center.

I am excited by the opportunity we have to encourage research, to promote scholarship to a popular audience and to bring positive change to the region that is my home. Our language arts program in the New Orleans public schools, for example, reaches beyond the purely academic world to improve the lives and futures of the city's young people.

Last year, the center's "Unsettling Memories" conference, held in partnership with Jackson State University, promoted racial healing and understanding. I can't imagine any other place possessing the rare mix of ingredients that would allow me to create a richer and more satisfying personal and professional life.

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