William D. Adams has served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities since 2014
I made my first visit to New Orleans as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in June of 2015. It was not my first trip to this remarkable city, but in my new role at NEH I saw it with fresh eyes and in a new way. And I started to understand better the work of both NEH and the state humanities councils, including the exemplary work of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
I owe this understanding in part to my visit to The Historic New Orleans Collection, where I toured the Williams Research Center and saw the extraordinary exhibit, Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865. With its remarkable permanent collections and research activities, the Williams Center certainly impressed. But my experience of THNOC curator Erin Greenwald’s Purchased Lives was nothing short of life changing.
I’ve read a good bit of American history, and in my time as a faculty member I taught the history of American political thought, including a section devoted to the causes and consequences of the Civil War. But I’d never before encountered the everyday meaning of slavery with quite the force and impact of Purchased Lives. It was the beginning of an important personal journey for me, still underway, toward a deeper understanding of the realities and history of race relations in the United States.
Purchased Lives was seen by more than 15,000 people in New Orleans. Then, thanks to a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibition reached upwards of fifty thousand more when it traveled to the Alexandria Museum of Art in Alexandria, Louisiana and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It opened at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin in February, where it will remain on view until July 9, 2017. A panel-based version of the exhibition, presented in collaboration with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and with financial support from Entergy Corporation, the National Park Service, the Kabacoff Family Foundation, and NEH, began traveling this past fall to ten additional venues throughout Louisiana, where thousands more will experience its power.
Not only did NEH provide funds to bring this groundbreaking exhibition to a wider audience, but NEH also played a role in its origins. The exhibition came about after the Library of Virginia asked THNOC to participate in a day-long symposium titled “To Be Sold: The American Slave Trade from Virginia to New Orleans.” That program, held in both Richmond and New Orleans in March 2015, was also funded by the NEH. As a result of this collaboration, the Collection began to examine and research the issue of New Orleans’s role in the domestic slave trade. Purchased Lives was born.
To me—and I hope to others—this vignette speaks volumes about why we need the humanities and the federal and state organizations that support them.
The great power of the humanities lies in their capacity to insert us more deeply into our experience and to help us understand the profound challenges and possibilities we encounter there. Understanding of this sort is not always easy or painless, and it raises as many questions as it solves. But it is also profoundly liberating. Without the capacity and appetite to know our own history and to know and apply the principles of liberal democracy, we cannot exercise the rights and duties of free citizens.
NEH and the state humanities councils matter because they symbolize the commitment of our country to its historical and cultural legacies and to the work of democracy. But NEH and the LEH also supply a portion of the resources that are necessary to do this work, in both the academy and in the public sphere.
Since 2006 alone, NEH has made 118 grants totaling more than $14,000,000 to individuals and institutions in Louisiana. These grants have gone to most of the colleges and universities in the state. They provided emergency support to threatened cultural resources and institutions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and again in 2016 in response to the floods in twenty-two parishes. They’ve made Louisiana’s extraordinary culture and history available to people in less travelled parts of the state—Bogalusa, Natchitoches, Bunkie, and Thibodaux. They’ve provided critical resources for important cultural institutions—the Louisiana Museum of Indian Culture, the Jackson Barracks Military Museum and Library, the Acadian Heritage and Culture Foundation, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Vermilion Parish Library, the Ouachita Parish Public Library, and the Assumption Parish Library. And they’ve brought Louisiana’s amazing musical traditions to Americans everywhere through Nick Spitzer’s extraordinary radio series, American Routes. NEH grants have also enabled Louisiana scholars to do the foundational work that is essential for every kind of humanities activity.
The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities has been an essential partner in NEH’s grant-making, but it is also doing its own extremely important cultural work. The PRIME TIME Family Reading and KnowLouisiana.org programs are wonderful examples of the kind of public humanities initiatives that only a state organization, with deep roots in local communities, can do. LEH stands out among state humanities councils for the breadth and consistently high quality of its programming.
Especially in this time of STEM and shifting educational priorities, the humanities matter more than ever before. And so do the institutions and agencies that support them. As the country engages in the widespread and necessary discussion of the best uses of our public resources, we need to remember that without public memory and a robust and strongly democratic political culture, our republic will be at serious risk. In this sense the humanities are every bit as important to our national security as our military institutions and might. They are the backbone of our history and culture, the guardians of our highest ideals.