University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers receives National Humanities Medal at White House ceremony July 10

July 10, 2013

Edward L. Ayers, historian of the American South and president and professor of history at the University of Richmond, received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in a July 10 ceremony at the White House East Room.

The medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened citizen engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.

"The University and the Board are enormously proud of Ed's strong record of scholarship, teaching, and innovation in the humanities," said Charles A. Ledsinger Jr., rector of the University’s Board of Trustees. "This record obviously played a central role in the Board's selection of him as Richmond's president, as he embodies the academic excellence that characterizes the University. We are thrilled to see him recognized in this visible way."

Ayers was recognized for his commitment to making American history widely accessible across a range of audiences, vehicles, and media.

"I am humbled by this award, for I have benefited from the help of many allies at every step of the way," Ayers said. "My goal is always the same, regardless of the medium:  to include many voices, from the past and in the present, in every conversation."

A longtime champion of excellence in teaching, Ayers was named a National Professor of the Year in 2003 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching. In addition to teaching thousands of students in his own courses, Ayers has engaged a broad range of teachers in the most effective approaches to addressing difficult historical questions. These teachers range from elementary level to the high school teachers participating in the summer seminars he leads sponsored by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

He has played a pioneering role in digital scholarship since the inception of the field in the early 1990s, overseeing the "Valley of the Shadow" project, devoted to the American Civil War. Ayers continues that work through his collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab based at the University of Richmond. The lab is developing a Digital Atlas of American History, which is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and will use the power of animated, data-rich maps to help students, scholars, and others see change over time.

Ayers is co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio program "BackStory with The American History Guys," broadcast on 34 stations around the country each week and downloaded more than two million times through podcasts. The program, which takes a topic from current headlines and examines it in historical context, is supported in part by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ayers is the author of four books and editor of seven. "The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction" was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. "In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863" won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history. 

Ayers has convened and led national and regional conversations connecting broad and diverse audiences to important aspects of the nation’s shared history. The University's home in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation have provided numerous recent opportunities for such conversations, in partnership with cultural institutions including the American Civil War Center, the National Park Service, the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the Richmond Slave Trail Commission. In 2009, Ayers chaired "America on the Eve of Civil War," sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. Held on Richmond's campus, the event brought together more than 2,000 people to examine the political, social, and economic climates leading to the outbreak of war.

Ayers led development of the 2011 "Let’s Talk About It: Making Sense of the Civil War," a program sponsored by the American Library Association, creating an original anthology to guide discussions. The ongoing series has reached some 20,000 participants through more than 1,000 library programs across the country. In 2012, he recruited and led the discussion among a panel of scholars at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History that explored President Lincoln's development of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862.

Ayers serves or has served on the boards of numerous historical and cultural organizations, as well as on the boards of the American Council on Education, the National Humanities Center, the National Council on the Humanities, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for History Education. 

"It is a testament to Ed's unique abilities that he has taught new courses, founded the Digital Scholarship Lab, led important conversations to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation, and co-hosted a weekly radio show—all while providing outstanding administrative leadership to the University," said Ledsinger. 

Since 2009, under its strategic plan, The Richmond Promise, the University has focused attention on priorities including ensuring access and affordability, fostering an inclusive community, and deepening engagement in the broader Richmond community, in addition to sustained emphasis on the student experience and academic excellence. In the past year, University of Richmond faculty have received prestigious recognition including a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Fulbright awards, while its students have received awards including a Truman Fellowship, a Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship, and a Fulbright research grant. 

Photo credit: Ralph Alswang, courtesy of NEH