Alabama Humanities Alliance Logo The Alabama Humanities Alliance (AHA) is an independent, nonprofit organization that serves as the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The AHA’s mission is to bring scholars and the public together to explore history, culture, values, and imagination. To accomplish this goal, the organization grants funds to colleges and universities, libraries, museums, historical organizations, arts organizations, schools, and community groups for a wide range of public humanities projects. The AHA 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. In 2021, the Alabama Humanities Foundation renamed itself the Alabama Humanities Alliance and launched a new logo under new director Chuck Holmes, a former broadcast journalism reporter and manager.
The AHA was founded in 1974 as the Committee for the Humanities and Public Policy 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. The AHA is headquartered in Birmingham and is overseen by a 25-member volunteer board of directors—six of whom are appointed by the governor. Board members include both scholars in the humanities and representatives from business, the professions, the nonprofit sector, and citizen volunteers.
In its early years, the organization focused exclusively 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 organization 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.” During this time, the organization also began to develop its own projects, including “Theatre in the Mind,” which was 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 the name Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF). Soon thereafter, AHF launched Road Scholars, a statewide speakers bureau of humanities scholars who make 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 events have included talks on a range of topics in the humanities, including “Rock in a Weary Land: The Black Church in 19th Century Alabama”; “Why We Must Remember: A Descendant’s Reckoning with Her Enslaving Ancestors”; “Encounters: Photographs by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Her Predecessors”; and “Black in the Black Belt: Cultural Organizing & Narrative Storytelling in a Storied Region of Alabama.”
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) in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. 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.
SUPER Session 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 is now known as Smithsonian Traveling Exhibits and has played a key role in meeting the organization’s commitment to serving small and rural communities. Museums, libraries, and community centers in nearly 30 communities have benefited from its presentations. 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.
Most AHA 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, the organization provided key support for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize series on the civil rights movement. Other films include Auburn Television’s Lost in Time (about Alabama’s Mississippian Indians), First Frontier (about early European exploration in the state), and From Fields of Promise (about the Gee’s Bend community). AHA 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 AHA 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.
Each year, AHA hosts the Alabama History Day statewide contest. During fall and winter, students in grades 6-12 throughout Alabama research historical topics of interest. Each spring on March 8, the students give presentations on Alabama History Day. These presentations include reports, documentaries, websites, dramatic performances, and visual exhibits. Winners go on to compete in Washington, D.C., for National History Day in June.
AHA promotes the humanities throughout Alabama with its annual Mosaic magazine, which features the work of scholars and writers from across the state. Previously focused on AHA’s activities and accomplishments, the organization reoriented the magazine as a storytelling magazine highlighting Alabama and its people through history, literature, the arts, and more. Each year has a thematic focus, with recent issues centering on rural life in the state and Alabama’s sports culture.
AHA 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. AHA 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.
AHA 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 the organization’s grants support conferences, lectures, teacher workshops, and reading and discussion programs on topics of interest to Alabama audiences outside the classroom. Notable events have included public programs on William Bartram, Southeastern Indian clothing, folk figure John Henry, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mobile’s Mardi Gras. AHA is also a leading supporter of literary conferences and symposia throughout the state. In 1989, the organization launched the Alabama Humanities Award, which is presented annually at a major luncheon. Honorees have included Winton M. Blount, Wayne Flynt, Gov. Albert Brewer, Harper Lee, and Sen. 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, Nobel-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison delivered an evening lecture. The award was later changed to the Alabama Humanities Fellows program. It is presented annually at the Alabama Colloquium, and past recipients have included historian and author Imani Perry, lawyers and civil rights activists Bryan Stevenson and Fred Gray, artist Nall Hollis, scientist Edward O. Wilson, musician Bobby Horton, and Odessa Woolfolk, founding chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
In 2001, then-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. In 2012, Armand DeKeyser took over as executive director of AHF; he had previously served as chief of staff for Sen. Jeff Sessions. In 2019, DeKeyser was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities and was replaced as director in April 2020 by Lynn Clark, former head of the Northeast Louisiana Children’s Coalition; her tenure was brief, however.
In 2023, AHA launched its Healing History program, a collaborative initiative centered on examining the shared history of Alabama citizens. Based at the former Wallace House plantation, the program began with conversations among the Black and White descendants of the plantation owners about their shared history.