The Oklahoma Humanities Council (OHC), an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), began operation in 1971 in Oklahoma City. Earlier, Oklahoma had been selected as one of the first five states in which the NEH worked with local leaders to help launch state-based humanities councils. The NEH, a national grant-making agency established by Congress in the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (Public Law 209), supports research, education, and public projects in the humanities. (Under the NEH's enabling legislation the term humanities includes these disciplines: language, linguistics, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, archaeology, comparative religion, ethics, and the history, criticism, and theory of the arts.) In creating state councils, NEH delegated some of its grant-making activities, particularly in public programs, to citizen boards established in each state.
The mission of the Oklahoma Humanities Council is to involve the Oklahoma public in humanities programming to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future. A nonprofit organization, OHC was first incorporated as the Oklahoma Humanities Committee on June 7, 1976. Later, amended incorporation documents changed its name to the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities on July 1, 1983, and again to the Oklahoma Humanities Council on November 14, 2000. The OHC began its existence with funding only from the NEH, as its state affiliate. Federal funding cutbacks in the 1980s and 1990s made it necessary for the council to support the growth of its programs with private contributions from foundations, corporations, individuals, and in the 1990s also through state contracts.
The governing board, whose members represent both the public and academic sectors and come from all parts of the state, is two-thirds self-selecting, one-third gubernatorial appointments. Appointees are selected by each governor and serve until replaced. Other members have three-year terms, which can be renewed one time. Vacancies are announced to the public.
From the first, OHC envisioned itself as a catalyst for ongoing cooperation and communication between and among humanities scholars, institutions with humanities resources, and the public. The council's activities include a grant program, with grants ranging in size and purpose. Most grants support public programming or planning for public programming, with the exception of a small research grant program for scholars. Grants support a variety of activities, some designed by local groups, and others support the use of council-provided program resources. By the year 2000 the grant program had provided more than three hundred thousand dollars from federal, state, and private monies, supporting approximately three hundred grant projects.
Over the years the council not only has sponsored but has helped other organizations design programs. Grants to qualified organizations have supported projects telling the stories of communities, especially small towns and rural areas, that never appear in the formal annals of history. OHS funding has helped many cities commemorate their centennials, using exhibits, lectures, and audio-visual materials to transmit the historical message to adults and children. The council has funded nationally broadcast films featuring the lives of important Oklahomans, including Angie Debo, John Hope Franklin, and Ralph Ellison.
Grants for exhibits have illustrated Oklahoma history and introduced Oklahomans to a wider world. Goin' Down the Road, Feelin' Bad told of Oklahoma during the Great Depression; and they called us 'Colored' examined the self-portrayal of African American Oklahomans through photographs. Grants have also enabled museums to host special traveling exhibits, including Gloria dell'Arte: A Renaissance Perspective, which used art works and objects from notable collections across the globe to illustrate the history of artistic production in the Renaissance. Other traveling exhibits, mounted by Oklahoma organizations and shared with other museums across the nation, included Beyond the Prison Gates: The Fort Marion Experience and its Artistic Legacy, which explored the experiences and artistic efforts of American Indians imprisoned in Florida for their actions in the Red River War.
OHC funding has also linked Oklahomans with their fellow citizens and world neighbors. During the 1980s grants supported a series of international theme conferences. Featured nations and regions included India, China, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East.
Collaborations have launched programs shared by many Oklahoma communities. In 1983 the council and the Oklahoma Library Association began Let's Talk About It, Oklahoma, providing libraries with stimulating humanities-oriented programs in which adults read books relevant to both history and contemporary life and then attend scholar-directed discussions. In 1985 the council began the TRACKS traveling exhibit service, administered by the Oklahoma Museums Association. Dozens of exhibits, many produced locally through council grants, became available for community organizations, schools, museums, and libraries. In the 1990s OHC began the Territory Speakers program, making scholar/lecturers available to talk to service clubs, library groups, senior centers, and other organizations.
OHC began one of its most popular offerings in 1990, joining four other plains states to offer Great Plains Chautauqua programs annually to one or two communities. Dating originally from 1874, Chautauqua is a summer tent show, a rare forum for humanities discussion in an age of electronic communication. Chautauqua continues the tradition, with scholars in character, portraying important American thinkers, writers, or politicians. In addition, OHC assisted the Tulsa Arts and Humanities Council in developing a "home grown" version to share with other towns. Both programs grew in popularity throughout the decade. In 1998 the council enhanced the impact of Chautauqua by offering History Alive! to classrooms across the state; this program offers scholars portraying historical characters.
In the late 1990s the council helped to launch two new programs. Connections, a reading- discussion program for newly literate readers, expanded the audience of Let's Talk About It, Oklahoma. The Clemente Course, conceptualized by author Earl Shorris, offered the humanities as a way for the poor to break out of the numbing cycle of poverty. The first Oklahoma organization to follow this lead, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (Chickasha) developed a bicultural course in the humanities for the Kiowa. This activity stimulated the university to create a Pan-American Center as a meeting place for all the indigenous tribes from Mexico to Alaska, who are working on Clemente Courses.
OHC's own projects included the 1990s exhibit series Many Peoples, One Land: The Oklahoma Experience, funded by an Exemplary Award from NEH. The series comprised three traveling exhibits that featured most of Oklahoma's many native cultural groups and immigrants. The exhibits toured Oklahoma under the auspices of TRACKS.
The Oklahoma Humanities Council publishes a tri-annual newsletter, Humanities Interview. Since 1986 the Council has sponsored the Oklahoma Lecture in the Humanities, alternating between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The lecture highlights the accomplishments of a nationally renowned scholar who has made significant contributions to a humanities field with scholarship that is accessible to a general audience. Speakers have included Daniel Boorstin, N. Scott Momaday, John Hope Franklin, Stephen Ambrose, Elizabeth Janeway, and Nell Irvin Painter.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities, An Odyssey of the Mind: Twenty-Five Years of the Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities, 1996).
Anita R. May
© Oklahoma Historical Society