The Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) is an independent, nonprofit organization that serves as the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). AHF's mission is to bring scholars and the public together to explore history, culture, values, and imagination. To accomplish this goal, AHF grants funds to colleges and universities, libraries, museums, historical organizations, arts organizations, schools, and community groups for a wide range of public humanities projects. AHF also raises funds from the state of Alabama, as well as from corporations, foundations, and individuals, to conduct its own statewide programs. Humanities disciplines include history, literature, languages, philosophy, ethics, art history and criticism, archaeology, jurisprudence, and linguistics.
AHF was founded in 1974 through the efforts of a group of state leaders in higher education (including former university presidents David Mathews of Alabama and Harry Philpott of Auburn), government, business, and the professions, who responded to an invitation from the NEH to establish a statewide organization for distributing federal humanities funds at a grassroots level. In its nearly 35-year history, AHF has invested more than $45 million in humanities grants and programs for the citizens of Alabama. Today, it operates from its offices in Birmingham with a staff of nine. A 25-member volunteer board of directors—six of whom are appointed by the governor—oversees the AHF and its programs. Board members include both scholars in the humanities and representatives of business, the professions, the nonprofit sector, and citizen volunteers.
Originally named the Committee for the Humanities and Public Policy, the organization focused exclusively in its early years on funding projects that incorporated humanities scholarship to address major public policy issues in government, health care, and human services. Beginning in the early 1980s, the committee began to respond to the public's interest in state and local history and culture, by expanding the focus from policy concerns only to include such projects as the 1983 "Alabama History and Heritage Festival." In the 1980s, the organization also began to develop its own projects, including "Theatre in the Mind," which is a series of lectures, outreach activities, and teacher workshops co-sponsored by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; and "Utopia in American Life and Literature," an exhibition and library reading program to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony.
In 1986, the organization adopted its current name. Soon thereafter, AHF launched Road Scholars, a statewide speakers bureau of humanities scholars who made free presentations to a wide variety of cultural and community groups in Alabama. The first speakers' series focused on the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987. Subsequent bureaus have included talks on a range of topics in the humanities, including "Rock in a Weary Land: The Black Church in 19th Century Alabama"; "A Little Known Episode of Alabama's History: The Imprisonment of Geronimo"; "Encounters: Photographs by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Her Predecessors"; and "Footprint on the Sky: Voices from Chandler Mountain."
AHF launched other programs during the next 10 years, including the Alabama Humanities Resource Center (1987); School and University Partners for Educational Renewal (SUPER, 1991); Humanities at Work (1993); Motheread (1996); and Museum on Main Street (MoMS, 2000). AHF created SUPER and Humanities at Work, whereas it assumed responsibility as the Alabama affiliate for the national Motheread and MoMS programs.
The SUPER program has served thousands of Alabama teachers with content-based institutes and workshops. Topics have ranged from Europe at the turn of the century, Africa, the Middle East, women writers, East Asia, and foreign-language immersion programs, to regional or state-focused topics such as the Black Belt, African American literature, and the history and culture of Mobile. The MoMS program of traveling exhibitions from the Smithsonian Institution has played a key role in meeting AHF's commitment to serving small and rural communities. Museums, libraries, and community centers in nearly 30 communities have benefited from MoMS presentations. Recent exhibitions have focused on traditional American foodways, the fence as both a feature of the rural landscape and a metaphor, and American roots music. Participating communities plan their own exhibitions and programs to relate the national exhibitions to local topics.
As it expanded its programs, AHF also sought to expand its nonfederal funding. In 1990, the state legislature approved its first appropriation for AHF, primarily to support the SUPER teacher program. Today, AHF receives financial support from a variety of sources, including the NEH, the state government, corporations, foundations, and individuals.
Most AHF projects focus on Alabama history and culture and have included documentary films produced by both institutional and independent filmmakers. In the mid-1980s, for example, AHF provided key support for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize series on the civil rights movement. Other AHF-funded films include Auburn Television's Lost in Time (about Alabama's Mississippian Indians), First Frontier (about the early European exploration of the state), and From Fields of Promise (about the Gee's Bend community). AHF grants also funded several films produced by the University of Alabama Center for Public Television, including I'm In the Truth Business: William Bradford Huie and Conscience of a Congressman: Carl Elliot. Using AHF grants, independent filmmakers have produced nationally broadcast films on James "Big Jim" Folsom Sr., George Wallace, and the role of Catholic nuns in the Selma voting rights movement.
AHF also has created or funded interpretive exhibitions for museums, libraries, and other cultural venues. Two of the foundation's own exhibitions included "In View of Home: Alabama Landscape Photographs" (1989) and "Glimpses of Community" (1995). Organized by the Huntsville Museum of Art, "In View of Home" featured images by Walker Evans, Kathryn Tucker Windham, and many other photographers who documented Alabama. It traveled to the Anniston Museum of Natural History, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and the Mobile Museum of Art. AHF also presented a series of book discussion seminars in small libraries on the landscape in Southern literature to accompany the exhibition. The project received the Federation of State Humanities Councils' 1990 Schwartz Prize for Public Humanities Projects. "Glimpses" displayed photos taken by ordinary Alabamians who used disposable cameras distributed at the 1994 Alabama Humanities Award luncheon to document aspects of their communities.
AHF grants have also supported traveling exhibitions on Ruby Pickens Tartt, Skyline Farms, the Great Depression in Alabama, and an innovative exhibition, developed by Vulcan Park, on the use of sandstone in architecture and construction. Other grants have supported educational programs associated with major exhibitions, such as a documentary film accompanying a permanent exhibition on the Upper Creek Towns at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The majority of AHF grants support conferences, lectures, teacher workshops, and reading and discussion programs on topics
of interest to Alabama audiences outside the classroom. Recent events of note include public programs on William Bartram, Southeastern Indian clothing, folk figure John Henry, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mobile's Mardi Gras. AHF is also a leading supporter of literary conferences and symposia throughout the state.
In 1989, AHF launched the Alabama Humanities Award, which is presented annually at a major luncheon. Honorees have included Winton M. Blount, Wayne Flynt, Governor Albert Brewer, Harper Lee, and Senator Howell Heflin. Nationally known figures who have served as keynote speakers at the luncheon include NEH Chairs Lynne Cheney, Sheldon Hackney, and Bruce Cole, as well as eminent scholars, artists, and writers such as Roger Rosenblatt, Charles Kuralt, William Christenberry, Rick Bragg, and Douglas Brinkley. In celebration of its 25th anniversary in 1999, AHF featured Nobel-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison in an evening lecture.
In 2001, AHF, working in partnership with the University of Alabama Press, secured the initial NEH planning grant for the Encyclopedia of Alabama (EOA). In 2003, Auburn University joined as AHF's principal partner and provided space for the editorial office to develop the EOA, which launched to the public in September 2008.
Robert C. Stewart
Published August 16, 2008
Last updated August 12, 2013