BIRMINGHAM / October 24, 2023 — Amidst an era of divisiveness and disinformation, the Alabama Humanities Alliance’s 2023 Alabama Colloquium shined a spotlight on how the humanities can build community and offer truth and healing through honest, shared explorations of the past. For proof of that, look no further than this year’s newly named Alabama Humanities Fellows, Imani Perry, Ph.D., and David Mathews, Ph.D.
Perry and Mathews were honored before a sold-out gathering at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, where the historian-author-scholar duo shared stories from their careers and the impact Alabama has had on their work.
Dr. Perry was introduced by Odessa Woolfolk, a 1997 Fellow and an icon in Birmingham for her role as an educator, activist, and as founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and as co-founder of Leadership Alabama.
During her presentation, Woolfolk noted that, “Dr. Perry has said ‘writing can be a moral instrument if it asks us to do more than read.’ South to America should inspire its readers to do something for the betterment of America. Perhaps, in the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, there is a lot of good trouble, necessary trouble to be had right here in Birmingham and in our country. Just a thought.”
Dr. Mathews was introduced by Catherine Randall, Ph.D., co-founder and chair emerita of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, as well as a five-time graduate of the University of Alabama.
“Today, David Mathews is receiving the highest humanities honor in the state because he sees diverse communities, rich cultures, and fellow neighbors more clearly and with more empathy,” Randall said. “He provides context that helps us better understand our past and our present…His scholarship and public service in pursuit of community-building and deliberative democracy represent the best of the humanities.”
Fellows in conversation
During their on-stage conversation, Mathews and Perry talked at great length about community and how the past informs our present.
“The word ‘community’ originally meant to share with or to care with,” Mathews noted. “Every word carries with it a history and that word’s history carries a recognition by our most ancient ancestors that to survive — just to stay alive — required different people to come together, beyond just family.”
“Part of the difficulty with listening is people are uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, which is actually a necessary part of being in respectful community,” Perry added. “At minimum, what’s required is for people to get comfortable with hearing things that might be unsettling and actually examine why it feels unsettling — to sit with the discomfort.”=
At the end of the event, each honoree was asked what it meant to return home to Alabama and receive this honor.
“It means the world to me,” Perry responded. “I have traveled far and been educated at lots of fancy places, but everything that I have carried with me that has enabled me to move with integrity and diligence and rigor and deep love of people — which is at the heart of the humanities — comes from this soil and my family. This means so much. There’s nothing in the world like being celebrated at home.”
Mathews ended his remarks with some levity, leaving the room in laughter. “A lot of people think I’m crazy,” he said with a smile. “But thanks to this award, they cannot prove it.”
The event was moderated by journalist Priska Neely, managing editor of the Gulf States Newsroom, an innovative collaboration among National Public Radio and member stations in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Neely filled in at the last second for planned moderator Kaitlan Collins, the CNN anchor and Alabama native who was sent on assignment to cover the ongoing war in the Middle East.
Collins sent a taped message to the Colloquium crowd that included her congratulations to Perry and Mathews: “You have both done such important work not only in exploring our past, but to also see how our past can be used to bring communities together and having those really important conversations that are so vital for our state.”
Other honorees recognized at the 2023 Alabama Colloquium included:
- Lajuana Bradford (center), Wayne Greenhaw Service to the Humanities Award
- Edgar Welden, AHA Champion of the Humanities Award
- Medical Properties Trust, AHA Champion of the Humanities Award
The Alabama Humanities Alliance also unveiled two new ways to engage with its work:
- A Healing History initiative designed to strengthen our communities, workforces, and state by helping Alabamians examine their shared history and get to know each other better. Across race, religion, politics, and all the supposed dividing lines that shouldn’t keep us apart.
- The W. Edgar Welden Fund for Education, an effort to ensure AHA’s Jenice Riley Memorial Scholarships for teachers are available for generations to come. Donations welcome.
Following the Colloquium, AHA offered a limited-capacity listening tour of Wallace House, run by our partners at the Wallace Center for Arts and Reconciliation. Built in 1841, in Harpersville, the Wallace House was once part of a 5,000-acre cotton plantation, which was worked by nearly 100 enslaved people.
Today, descendants of the home’s White landowners and enslaved Black population work together to examine their shared history and create a space for mutual understanding and reconciliation. Tour participants visited with those descendants as they shared their stories, and their hopes for the future. The tour also offered a chance to explore family exhibits and experience an open-air sculpture, Bearing Witness: Praise House, that evokes the spiritual practices of those once enslaved on the plantation.
Watch an AHA-funded video about the work underway at Wallace House.
AHA is focused on Healing History because its impact is needed urgently in our communities, and because it offers great hope for our future. As AHA’s Healing History coordinator Kathy Boswell shared:
“One of the best things about sharing history is being able to sit down and have those conversations through love, first of all. To speak from the heart and learn through the heart. To speak from curiosity and learn through curiosity, through humility. And, especially, to share and learn through willingness. Because what willingness means is, ‘I’ve left behind all the doubt, the fear, the shame, the concerns. And what I’m willing to do is, is to have the courage to raise my hand and say I’m in.’”
About AHA’s 2023 Alabama Humanities Fellows
Imani Perry, a Birmingham native, is a scholar of law, literature, history, and cultural studies, as well as a creative nonfiction author. In 2022, she won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. She was also recently received the MacArthur Fellow “genius grant.”
Perry has written five other books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which won the 2019 PEN Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, and May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, winner of the 2019 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction.
Perry is a professor in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for interdisciplinary exploration. She has bachelor’s degrees from Yale in American studies and literature, along with two terminal degrees from Harvard — a J.D. and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization. Outside of academia, Perry is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, where she pens a weekly newsletter that frequently reckons with the past, “Unsettled Territory.”
David Mathews, a Grove Hill native, has dedicated his life to building community and promoting democracy. Mathews earned an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. Returning to UA, Mathews both taught history and made it. He served as a history professor from 1965-1980, became the youngest president of a major university when he began his UA tenure at age 33, and presided over the integration of the Crimson Tide’s football program under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Mathews also served as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in President Gerald Ford’s administration, where he worked on restoring public confidence in government. And he spent four decades as president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, focusing the nonprofit’s work on engaging citizens in the democratic process.
Mathews’ legacy is evidenced in Alabama at the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, which seeks to strengthen civic engagement statewide. While president at UA, he also played a significant role — along with his counterpart at Auburn, Harry Philpott — in helping to found what is now the Alabama Humanities Alliance.
About the Alabama Humanities Alliance
Founded in 1974, the nonprofit Alabama Humanities Alliance serves as a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through our grantmaking and public programming, we connect Alabamians to impactful storytelling, lifelong learning, and civic engagement. We believe the humanities can bring our communities together and help us all see each other as fully human. Learn more at alabamahumanities.org.