The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Ed Ayers receives National Humanities Medal

President Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Edward L. Ayers. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Edward L. Ayers. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

BackStory and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities are extremely proud of our 19th Century American History Guy – otherwise known as Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond and historian extraordinaire, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama last week. Ed was recognized at a White House ceremony on July 10th, along with eleven other 2012 National Humanities Medal and twelve 2012 National Medal of Arts recipients.

In addition to sharing thought-provoking aspects of history with public radio listeners on BackStory each week, and leading the University of Richmond, Ed has found time to be the author or editor of ten books (including the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies), as well as undertaking innovative digital scholarship. While serving as Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, Ed directed the online history project “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” and at Richmond, he has championed the Digital Scholarship Lab.

President Ayers’s National Humanities Medal citation reads as follows:

Edward L. Ayers for his commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible. Dr. Ayers’s innovations in digital humanities extend higher learning beyond campus boundaries and allow broad audiences to discover the past in new ways.

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.

Since 1996, when the first National Humanities Medal was given, 145 individuals have been honored, inclusive of this year’s awardees. Ten organizations also received medals. Previous medalists include Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, novelist John Updike, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, sociologist Robert Coles, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg. A complete list of previous honorees is available online.

The National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH] was created in 1965 as an independent Federal agency. The NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation, and brings high-quality historical and cultural experiences to large and diverse audiences in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and five territories.

The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government. The National Medal of Arts is awarded by the President of the United States to individuals or groups who “…are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”

The National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] was established by the Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the Federal Government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. The NEA extends its work through partnerships with State arts agencies, local leaders, other Federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.

The President presented awards to the following individuals and organizations:

2012 National Humanities Medal

  • Edward L. Ayers, Henrico, VA
  • William G. Bowen, Princeton, NJ
  • Jill Ker Conway, Boston, MA
  • Natalie Zemon Davis, Toronto, CANADA
  • Frank Deford, New York, NY
  • Joan Didion, New York, NY
  • Robert Putnam¸ Cambridge, MA
  • Marilynne Robinson¸ Iowa City, IA
  • Kay Ryan, Fairfax, CA
  • Robert B. Silvers, New York, NY
  • Anna Deavere Smith¸ New York, NY
  • Camilo José Vergara, New York, NY

2012 National Medal of Arts

  • Herb Alpert, Malibu, CA
  • Lin Arison, Bal Harbour, FL
  • Joan Myers Brown, Philadelphia, PA
  • Renée Fleming, New York, NY
  • Ernest Gaines, Oscar, LA
  • Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY
  • Tony Kushner, New York, NY
  • George Lucas, San Anslemo, CA
  • Elaine May, New York, NY
  • Laurie Olin, Philadelphia, PA
  • Allen Toussaint, New Orleans, LA
  • Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC 

More details on each of the recipients.

BackStory, With the American History Guys is a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities weekly radio show featuring historians who explore contemporary topics through three centuries of American history. For more information about BackStory, visit

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), established in 1974, encourages discovery and connection through the humanities by supporting and producing programs for a wide public audience.  It works with individuals and communities to explore the past, confront issues of the present, and discover a promising future.  For more information about VFH, visit

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