Chartered in 1974, the Tennessee Humanities Council exists to bring the study of the humanities into public awareness, thus fulfilling the mission of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) at the state level. In the beginning, many associated with the council expected it to unite Tennesseans of different regions, races, and economic backgrounds through examination of their common needs and goals. The council’s first funding proposal, constructed as a result of “coffee meetings” with citizens across the state, bore the title, “Them and Us: What Divides Tennesseans? What Can Unite Them?”
The first director of the Tennessee Humanities Council was Jane Crater. Noted for her public relations skills, she was quite successful in making the humanities council’s mission intelligible to the public. Later directors have had to strike a careful balance between the desires of the academic world and those of the public at large. Critics of the council have expressed some of the same sentiments voiced against the NEH: that it provides one-way communication from “those who know” (the academic community) to “those who do not know” (the general public). According to current Executive Director Robert Cheatham, state humanities councils have had to fight that image since their founding.
The Tennessee Humanities Council provides support grants to projects that involve both the academic community and the general public. Cheatham’s leadership produced the Southern Festival of Books, an annual event held in downtown Nashville featuring book sales, autograph parties, and author readings in fiction, poetry, history, and other disciplines. Under Cheatham’s oversight, the council also sponsored the Tennessee Community Heritage Project, in which college faculty collaborated with local citizens to write the histories of numerous Tennessee communities. These examples are just two of the successful statewide projects supported by the council over the last three decades.