Founders Award: Reflections from Arnita Jones

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Arnita Jones, photo credit the author

Arnita Jones, photo credit the author

Recently, I received the announcement of the Founders Award that the National Council on Public History will present later this week to me and to Philip Cantelon, my colleague of many years, various associations and initiatives. Reading the citation for the award brought back many treasured memories of the early days of public history, especially memories of individual historians who were mentors and co-workers and who became invaluable friends. I look forward to thanking and visiting with them at our upcoming meeting in Baltimore. But several who were particularly influential in my work to secure a place for public history within the historical profession have died, so I would like to thank them and highlight their contributions here: 

Anna Nelson was the first person who dropped by to say hello when I was hired in 1977 by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and several other groups to develop the National Coordinating Committee (NCC) for the Promotion of History. Having staffed the Public Documents Commission several years earlier, she had become an expert on federal records, particularly those of the executive branch, and was already volunteering time on AHA’s lobbying efforts relating to the preservation and use of presidential records, an effort that would culminate in the Presidential Records Act of 1978. During the 1980s, she managed the high profile Committee on the Records of Government, which explored the impact of the coming digital revolution in record keeping for government offices, and, in the following decade, she was one of five US Senate-confirmed scholars who formed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. Though she loved the teaching and writing of history, Nelson was in effect doing public history work for her entire career and tirelessly shared her insights, experience, and rich Washington network with me and other public historians.

Richard Hewlett spent his career in the historical office of the Atomic Energy Commission, later the Department of Energy. He was a very highly respected and senior historian there when I started to work at the NCC, and he had agreed to chair one of the resource groups already established. When I called to introduce myself, he became my guide to federal government history, introducing me to historians in Washington, who numbered in the hundreds and who worked throughout the federal government. Hewlett’s own prize-winning volumes on the history of the atomic bomb and development of the Department of Energy and energy policy in the United States gave him credibility in both academic and government circles.  But he was also a good choice as leader for the NCC effort, which he supported steadily, as well as the nascent Society for History in the Federal Government, and eventually the National Council on Public History. He taught me a lot about bureaucracy, how to negotiate in and around it, and how you can be a teacher without becoming a professor.

Robert Kelley was a distinguished scholar who, during his many years as a faculty member at the University of California Santa Barbara, had served as a consultant on various issues and problems confronting governments and other public institutions.  He was, as well, the historian who coined the phrase “public history.” I got to know him because I met Wes Johnson, who was speaking on the graduate program in public history at UCSB at a conference on “alternative careers” hosted by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Johnson suggested I call Kelley for more information, and I did.  After several hours on the phone, he convinced me that the program he and Johnson had devised at UCSB could be a model for others around the country, demonstrating that it was possible to expand graduate training in history to include not only sound scholarship but also professional training in related fields, such as policy, historic preservation, archives, and museums. The Public Historian, the journal both Kelley and Johnson created at UCSB, served as an additional venue for publicizing early work in the field.

Ernest May created a different kind of model for public history work. A prize-winning scholar of the history of international relations, he had served for decades as an influential consultant to policy- and decision-makers in government. As the employment crisis in history and other fields grew severe enough that it affected graduate students in private elite as well as public institutions, May, then a dean at Harvard, developed a creative model for addressing it. “Careers in Business,” as the program was known, was a well-funded, highly competitive effort that provided first, orientation into the world of business and government, followed by paid internships whereby historians and others applied their research, analytical, and writing skills to real-world problems outside academe. As the program ran for several years and spawned a series of imitators in other humanities fields, May himself continued to be a model of the scholar who applied his skills to real-world problems: as a regular consultant over several decades to the intelligence and military community and as author of the influential Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. His early support of public history made a difference in gaining acceptance for the field in both higher education institutions and scholarly societies.

In the early days of NCPH, these were some of the people sitting around the table trying to figure out how to cobble together enough resources to staff the organization and carry out the mission it was developing. They understood that the infrastructure of higher education institutions, as well as academic and scholarly societies, could be utilized to insure that public history was taken seriously enough that at least some graduate programs would adapt to a new environment. They also understood that scholarly standards and habits–codes of ethics in research and practice–held up by these institutions could be beneficial to government, corporations, and other kinds of institutions in need of historians’ skills. It was a privilege to work with them and other founders of NCPH.

~Arnita Jones teaches history at American University. Dr. Jones joined the American Historical Association as Executive Director in June 1999, after serving 11 years as Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians. She holds a BA from Vanderbilt University and the MA and PhD in modern European history from Emory University. In addition, she was a Program Officer for Planning and Assessment at the National Endowment for the Humanities and was the first director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.

Editor’s note: This post continues the History@Work tradition of honoring winners of NCPH’s annual awards.  Arnita Jones, along with Philip Cantelon, is a 2016 winner of the Founders Award. In 2015, the NCPH Council of Past Presidents  developed the Founders Award to recognize those individuals who were present at the creation of NCPH and who played critical roles in the organization’s success.

1 comment
  1. Donna M. Neary says:

    Congratulations, Arnita! This award is so well deserved. Arnita Jones is a generous person and member of the PH community. She is a consummate professional who is interested in the health and strength of the field of public history as a whole and its individual practitioners. When I reached out to her as a new transplant to Louisville in 1987 she immediately scheduled lunch with me. The lunch meeting had barely begun before Arnita was listing the names of people in town to contact and ideas for job prospects. She continued to check in with me, and after she moved away we always caught up at NCPH annual conferences. All the best for what is to come!

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