Princeton University

From the 2018 Award for Scholarly Distinction citation in the 2019 Annual Meeting Awards Ceremony booklet

At each juncture of Nell Irvin Painter’s career, she has written disruptive books with lasting legacies. She pioneered methods to recover black lives and built on that work to reinterpret historical subfields.

Her first book, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976), explores migration as a political strategy and recovered what the American Historical Review called “a genuine folk movement . . . undeservedly ignored.” In The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: The Life and Times of a Black Radical (1979), Painter and co-author Hudson revealed a hidden history of southern black radicalism that upended genealogies of black resistance. Southern History across the Color Line (2002) made it infinitely more difficult to write southern history limited to white southerners. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era (1987) reinterpreted the period by moving the focus from expert elites to grassroots activists.

Thus, Painter realigned social history to include African Americans, labor history to include southern communists, southern history to include African Americans as omnipresent actors, and Progressive Era history to focus on the working class and African Americans. Her astonishingly bold and theoretical Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996) is a meticulous biography, but it is more. Painter integrates fresh conceptions of womanhood, historical memory, slavery, and freedom to speak broadly to major issues in the 19th century. Her latest historical work, A History of White People (2010), is a sweeping analysis of the construction of whiteness over time and place.

An inspiring mentor, Painter changed the worldviews and historical aspirations of her PhD students. They all benefited from her knack of teaching students to rethink what they thought they knew. She also taught them to be fearless. Painter’s virtuosity and her lasting impact on many fields is an extraordinary legacy. She has remained active in a broad range of professional associations. Her meticulous research and eloquent writing are models for historical works. Her curiosity exemplifies the excitement of discovery that is at the heart of our profession.