NEH Chairman Impressed by AHF, Birmingham

NEH Chairman Jim Leach was a big hit in Birmingham on July 29, delivering a talk on civility and American politics at Samford University and participating in a series of meetings and tours around the city. This was his first visit to Birmingham or Alabama since he was a young child, and he was extremely impressed with what he saw. Read about a few highlights from his day after the jump.

• His first stop was a tour of Vulcan Museum and Park. The AHF-funded exhibition on the history of baseball in Birmingham, now on view there, vividly demonstrates how our grant funds can be used to produce historically well-documented and skillfully designed museum exhibitions. The staff there did a superb job of orienting Leach to the city’s geology, topography and industrial history—some of which they did from the catwalk 160 feet atop Vulcan’s pedestal! Many thanks to Vulcan president Darlene Negrotto and education curator Phillip Ratliff. (For photos from the chairman’s visit to Vulcan, please see Flickr.)

• AHF Board member John Knapp hosted a luncheon at Samford where the faculty and staff shared with Leach how AHF and the university are supporting liberal arts education in Alabama. Knapp serves as executive director of the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership at Samford. The Mann Center, the Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education (BACHE) and AHF collaborated on many of the day’s events. Knapp, his Samford colleague Kara Kennedy, and BACHE Chairman David Chapman all deserve thanks.

• The chairman also toured the internationally acclaimed Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). BCRI Education Director Ahmad Ward gave him a concise overview of the exhibitions, which dramatically tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. BCRI Vice President Priscilla Cooper also reported to Leach about their current teacher education grant from NEH, entitled “Stony the Road We Trod.”

• While at BCRI, Leach met with 15 AHF constituents and three AHF program staff members. These constituents included humanities scholars, secondary teachers, high school students and grant recipients. Each one told how SUPER, SES and other AHF projects have had meaningful impacts on their educations and professions. One participant said, “Tears almost come to my eyes when I talk about these programs.” Another stated that AHF has “changed Alabama,” especially through such major efforts as the Encyclopedia of Alabama. These were not scripted or solicited comments. I hope staff members Tom Bryant, Susan Perry and Michael Chambers took great pride in hearing them. I certainly did.

• That evening Leach spoke before about 150 citizens, business leaders and elected officials in Samford’s Beeson Recital Hall. In a wide-ranging talk about how the decline of civility has affected everything in our political life—from elections to congressional legislation to Supreme Court decisions—he sounded a clarion call for a greater willingness to see all points of view on an issue. The audience left with a renewed commitment to this goal, respect for the new leader at NEH and appreciation for how AHF itself plays a role in improving civic life in Alabama. We hope he returns here soon.