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Society of American Historians Announces 2021 Prize Winners

The Society of American Historians is delighted to announce our 2021 prize winners.

To hear brief remarks from each winner please visit the Society's SoundCloud page.

●The second annual Tony Horwitz Prize honoring distinguished work in American history of wide appeal and enduring public significance is awarded to Lonnie G. Bunch III.

Mr. Bunch, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has contributed beyond measure to the preservation, presentation, and interpretation of the African American experience. Mr. Bunch meditated on these experiences in, among other volumes, Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race & Museums (2010) and A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Era of Bush, Obama, and Trump (2019).

In 2005, after a distinguished curatorial career at the National Museum of American History and four years as president of the Chicago Historical Society, Mr. Bunch accepted the challenge of conceiving and creating an institution that would commemorate and continually re-imagine the experience of African Americans from the arrival of the first slave ships to the present day.

Because of his vision, tenacity, diplomatic skill, and sheer passion, this great museum opened to the public in 2016 within 1,000 feet of the Washington Monument on the National Mall. It began as an idea with no home and no collection. Today it holds more than 40,000 objects—many contributed by families who had sheltered them from oblivion for generations—from Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, to Emmett Till’s casket and Chuck Berry’s guitar. The NMAAHC is a living institution that combines the long narrative of African-American history with focused special exhibitions and “reflection booths” where visitors add their own memories to the ever-growing whole. Simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, it tells a complex yet gripping story that reflects its founder’s conviction that “one can tell a great deal about a country by what it remembers” and his admonition that “one learns even more about a nation by what it forgets.”

The Horwitz prize, supported by The Cedars Foundation, honors the Society’s treasured colleague and former president, Tony Horwitz, who died in 2019. Horwitz, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, and a distinguished historian whose distinctive voice was marked by surpassing humanity and grace.

●The 64th annual Frances Parkman Prize is awarded to Christopher Tomlins for In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History (Princeton University Press).

Christopher Tomlins ingeniously reconstructs an event and a man we thought we knew: the tragic 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia and its near-mythic leader, Nat Turner. The significance of this book extends well beyond the new story it tells.  The author takes us on his journey of discovery, offering penetrating new readings of the existing evidence, subtly deciphering Turner’s extensive use of religious language, and forging new connections between the event and the larger context of the legal power, violence, and political forces arrayed against any opponent of slavery.

The book is also a master class in the craft of history. By sharing his reflections and speculations throughout the book, Tomlins allows the reader to appreciate every facet of his interrogation of the actions taken by Turner and other key figures in the story. In addition, Tomlins offers a profound new interpretation of The Confessions of Nat Turner (the original version, based on the interview by Thomas Ruffin Gray shortly after the insurrection). It is the one document that gives us clues to Turner’s motives.  Through his exegesis, Tomlins recovers Turner’s agency, treats him on his own terms as an intellectual, shows that his religious beliefs sprang from a deep knowledge of the Bible, and reveals him as a keenly perceptive student of the Virginia slaveholding society in which he lives.  And as Turner acts on his apocalyptic and messianic desires, the author forces us into a productively unsettling confrontation with what Turner called the “work of death” and its consequences.

Christopher Tomlins has given us a deep, original reckoning with the historical record, one that is bound to influence future investigations of Nat Turner, his moment, and its continuing reverberations.

Tomlins, the author of three other books, is the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Parkman Prize, named for a 19th-century historian widely recognized for his elegant prose style, is awarded annually to a nonfiction book that is distinguished by its literary merit and makes an important contribution to the history of what is now the United States.

●The 15th SAH Prize for Historical Fiction is awarded to Afia Atakora for Conjure Women (Random House).

Afia Atakora took for herself an extremely challenging task—recreating, peopling and building a vanished historical world that is underrepresented in published and archival sources. She unequivocally succeeded. Her characters, situations, and scenes are richly imagined and compelling, and her prose at the same time poetic and precise. 

Conjure Women is deeply informed by history. Moving forward and backward in time, the novel weaves in a long stretch of our nation’s vexed and complicated past—of enslavement, the Civil War, emancipation, and freedom; of gruesome racism and troubled friendships across lines of race. Atakora makes excellent uses of the sources that are available—including the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives—to tell the stories of many intertwined lives in ways that are intricate and suspenseful, absorbing and illuminating.

Especially impressive is the fact that this is a first novel. No doubt it will be followed by many others. We look forward to seeing how this gifted author’s career unfolds.

Atakora, who was born in the UK and raised in New Jersey, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The SAH Prize for Historical Fiction is awarded biennially in odd-numbered years for a book of historical fiction on an American subject that makes a significant contribution to historical understanding, portrays authentically the people and events of the historical past, and displays skill in narrative construction and prose style.

●The 61st annual Allan Nevins Prize is awarded to Brianna Nofil for her dissertation, “Detention Power: Jails, Camps, and the Origins of Immigrant Incarceration, 1900-2002” (Columbia University).

In a field that included many superb entries, Nofil’s work was notable for its depth and breadth of research, including work in more than 90 local newspapers, its chronological and geographical range and the moral urgency of its prose.

“Detention Power” looks at the reliance of federal immigration policy on local law enforcement agencies from the early twentieth century onwards, demonstrating the political and human consequences of framing immigration policy as a criminal justice problem. Immigrant detention, Nofil reveals, shaped the political economy of communities on the northern and southern borders alike as they sought federal funds in return for turning local jails into detention facilities. She demonstrates the often-shocking conditions that men, women and children seeking entry to the United States had to endure. Finally, Nofil illuminates the resistance that detention policy long has faced, both in the broader political community and from people confined within the jails themselves.

Nofil, who earned her Ph.D. at Columbia University under the direction of Mae Ngai, is currently Assistant Professor of History at the College of William & Mary.

The Allan Nevins Prize, named for the Society’s founder, is awarded annually to a doctoral dissertation on an American subject. The winning dissertation will be published by one of the publisher members of the Society.

The finalist for this year's Nevins Prize is Ryan Tate for his dissertation, "Coal Frontier: Corporate Power and the Making of the Powder River Basin, 1965-1985."  This beautifully written study of coalfield communities in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota was completed at Rutgers University under the direction of Dorothy Sue Cobble.

Read entire article at Society of American Historians