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Black History, Studies To Get Renewed Focus With Painter at Helm of Organization of American Historians

At the age of 64, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter — one of the nation’s most respected Black historians — has become an undergraduate student all over again. Most of her classmates are the same age as the students she once taught.

Painter, who retired from Princeton University in 2005 after serving as the Edwards Professor of American History and director of the school’s African American studies department, is now enrolled as a full-time student at Rutgers University, where she is working toward a Bachelors in Fine Arts from the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Painter says the study of photography in particular is an interest that she always wanted to pursue, but never got around to until after she retired from Princeton.

In addition to her undergraduate studies, Painter is now poised to assume the presidency of the Organization of American Historians, the 100-year-old organization dedicated to the study, practice and teaching of American history.

She is the third Black woman ever to serve as the organization’s president and is replacing Dr. Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.

Painter says that as president she has no grandiose plans for now. She is most concerned that the organization remains on firm financial footing, and she says she plans to spend much of her presidency simply listening to her colleagues.

“I plan to ask the membership for their assistance so that I may benefit from their views,” she says.

Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first Black woman elected to OAH. Elected in 1990, she was succeeded by Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, currently a professor at Northwestern University, in 2001. 

“My selection as president of OAH was a landmark achievement,” says Berry, who has also served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “I am excited that we now have three Black women who have led this organization after so many White men one after another. It shows just how much the profession is changing.”

Berry says that with Painter at the helm of the organization, Black history and Black studies will receive renewed attention, in part because of Painter’s distinguished scholarly record.

Painter received her doctorate in American history from Harvard University in 1974 and taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill before arriving at Princeton in 1988. She has authored eight books and is considered the foremost scholar on Sojourner Truth.

Outside of academia, Painter says she’s focused on helping Blacks pay closer attention to their physical health.

“The field of African-American studies is doing very well, but the bodily health of African-American people is not so well,” she says, noting that large numbers of Blacks suffer from stress-related ailments.

“Black people still experience unusual pressures,” she says.

–Jamal Watson

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