Two assistant professors of history at Case Western Reserve University’s College of Arts and Sciences are embarking on a three-year journey to provide a more accurate and comprehensive narrative of Black and Native American political life in the United States before the modern Civil Rights movement.
Their project, Native Americans and African Americans In and Out of the U.S. Body Politic, was awarded an inaugural Higher Learning grant by the Mellon Foundation—the nation’s largest non-federal funder of the humanities and a major contributor to higher education programs.
Noël M. Voltz specializes in African American, early American and African diaspora histories, and John Bickers, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, teaches early American and Native American histories. Voltz and Bickers are co-principal investigators on the study and both received their PhDs from The Ohio State University, the institution formally conducting the research. Their team includes researchers Margaret Newell (Ohio State University) and Deondre Smiles (University of Victoria).
“Our dominant national narrative on race and civic engagement before the modern Civil Rights movement focuses on exclusion,” reads the research brief. “It conveys a sense of non-participation in political life by people of color. The broad story is about the dispossession of Native Americans from their lands and their exclusion from U.S. citizenship until 1924. For African Americans, it is about enslavement and backlash attacks on [the] citizenship rights of free people of color after the gains of the American Revolution and Reconstruction.”
The $492,000 Higher Learning grant awarded to Voltz and Bickers’ team is part of a new $12 million funding effort by the Mellon Foundation to support research and curricular projects addressing civic engagement and voting rights, race and racialization in the United States, and social justice and the literary imagination.
The open call for proposals, announced in spring 2022, generated more than 280 submissions from 150 institutions. In January 2023, the foundation announced 26 U.S. colleges and universities selected for grant funding.
Voltz, Bickers, Newell and Smiles plan to partner with Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as tribal colleges and communities, as part of their goal to empower students as researchers to “write their own histories and learn about the past to change the present.”
“This Mellon Foundation grant brings incredible shine to Case Western Reserve University,” said Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III, also the Hiram C. Haydn Professor of History and a historian of Colonial Latin America. “Our work as a community to achieve true social impact through deeper partnerships is fully on display with this project, and I could not be more pleased.”