by Maggie Guggenheimer
In 2014, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) turned forty years old. Every state has a humanities council, a child of the Great Society’s National Endowment for the Humanities, but Virginia’s is the largest and most diverse of all, in part because of the vision of its founder, Rob Vaughan, who leads VFH today. Vaughan began by asking Virginians questions in 1974, and the asking of questions continues to direct our work.
We have spent the past year marking this anniversary and taking a closer look at some of VFH’s most remarkable connections—rich stories that span not only the forty years, but also the geography of the Commonwealth, from the Crooked Road to the Eastern Shore. If you’ve followed along, we hope you’ve enjoyed the 40 Years, 40 Stories series and learned more about our work, and Virginia, along the way.
We have appreciated Virginia’s cultural traditions, whether they are songs of Appalachian coalmines or Mexican folk dances. We have reflected on changes in our political world and the experience of war and gone behind the scenes at BackStory, one of VFH’s national radio programs. We have remembered and revitalized the slow art of printmaking in the digital age, “witnessed a furious flowering of black poetry,” and looked ahead to how technology is making Virginia’s historic sites more accessible. We have explored our changing relationships with Virginia’s landscapes, from the Old Belt tobacco region to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These vivid narratives, and many more that have been told over the last forty years, have shaped our work.
Certain stories require a long arc of attention. The imperative to tell the “untold” stories, in particular, has been a driving force for VFH. In the beginning, we focused on the history and cultural contributions of women and African Americans in Virginia. Our focus on African Americans has only deepened over the decades, with more than 150 VFH programs in the last year and a half alone illuminating aspects of the African American experience in Virginia. In 1987 we made a commitment to telling the stories of Virginia Indians, which led to a VFH grant that supported the first meeting of the then eight state-recognized Indian tribes since the 1600s. Our attention to these stories has been unwavering. Now in the twenty-first century, we are widening our lens to keep pace with a rapidly diversifying Commonwealth, with nearly 1 million foreign-born Virginians among our vast constituency.
Our way of learning about and telling these stories is also unique. Encyclopedia Virginia and Virginia Center for the Book programs, for example, take great care in telling stories for K-12 student and teacher audiences. We are the only humanities council that produces radio programs, which are an especially effective tool for bringing the work of scholars to the general public. The relevance of radio in the digital age is unquestionable— BackStory alone has registered more than 7 million downloads. Our grants program has supplied seed funding to projects ranging from the film Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the Tobacco South (2005), to the book Lost Communities of Virginia (2011); from oral histories collected from old-timers whose memories of one-room black segregated schools are in danger of dying when they do, to the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia Community House and Interpretive Center in Southampton County. The ethos of the grants program has community members and academic scholars coming together to produce enduring contributions to the humanities in Virginia. And the vast majority of all our programming directly involves scholars and interpreters who are members of the cultural groups represented.
As we look to the next forty years of VFH, now more than ever, we are also telling the story of the humanities themselves. Our work seeks to illustrate the great importance of the humanities at a time when many say they are under attack. As one of our Virginia Arts of the Book Center prints powerfully states, the humanities are our human ties. The 40 Years, 40 Stories series has shown that this is true in myriad ways. We hope you agree—and join us in a commitment to the humanities, a critical tool for shaping a more promising future in Virginia and beyond.