“It’s a shadow on such a joyful moment,” she said.
Kimberly Welch was at home with a groundbreaking case of covid-19 when she learned she too was a recipient, for her work unearthing lawsuits from free and enslaved African Americans in the South of before the war.
“It was like being struck by lightning,” Welch said.
Romik and Welch are two of the first nine winners of the reimagined Dan David Prize, which aims to be a MacArthur-style “genius grant” for early- and mid-career scholars and artists studying the human past.
The prize is big – each winner will receive $300,000 – and wide. While recipients must agree to spend the money for purposes that will help them continue their work, if that means using funds to pay rent or student loans, that’s perfectly fine, said Ariel David, the son of the prize’s namesake and the leader of its redesign.
Dan David was a Romanian Jewish immigrant to Israel who made his fortune in photo booths around the world. When he launched the prize in 2001, there were three laureates per year, but each year focused on a different discipline; in 2021, the focus was on public health, and one of the winners was Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
David died in 2011 and his son took over the foundation that awards the prize. Over time, it’s become more of a “lifetime achievement award,” Ariel David told The Washington Post. Additionally, “I felt the award could be more focused in the sense that with its domain changing every year, it removed the focus, identity and impact of the award.”
So, he said, he sat down with the prize board members and started brainstorming. What would be the new direction? What would have the most impact?
They focused on the story for many reasons, David said. On the one hand, his father loved the subject. The area is also under threat. He pointed out that UK universities were closing entire history departments and that a 2018 study by the American Historical Association showed that since the economic downturn in 2008 the number of majors in history at American colleges fell by a third, more than any other major.
“This award is not going to save history,” he said, “but on our small scale, we want to leverage the award to highlight to the general public the importance of historical research.”
And it has never been more important, he said, in an age of rampant disinformation and misinformation, to support people with “a set of skills – knowing how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources – society seems to have lost”.
“We have to avoid the idea that history repeats itself, because it doesn’t, but you can’t understand today if you don’t understand the past,” he said, “if it is Russia invading Ukraine or whether it is social and racial conflict in the United States.
And all is not catastrophic. Even with history faculties dwindling, they have also rebalanced, with less emphasis on the traditional style of history that emphasizes “names and dates” and the actions of predominantly white and males, and more historians specializing in the often hidden histories of marginalized peoples.
Welch, for example, spent years in abandoned and neglected county clerks’ records throughout Mississippi and Louisiana, where she found ample evidence that pre-Civil War Southern American blacks, both free and enslaved, sued whites in local courts over property disputes and arrears of wages and even to secure release from bondage.
“These are claims to personality and human dignity…and they often win,” Welch said. Although these black litigants were not trying to overthrow the system of slavery per se, they could “use the language of property rights as a substitute for civil rights”.
Welch doesn’t yet have details on how she will use the prize money, but she said it would allow her to take on bigger projects that could become multiple books. And she is excited to digitize more documents and make them accessible to others.
“I also drive a 16-year-old car, so that would be good on a practical level,” she said with a laugh.
With the prize money, Romik hopes to publish a book in English and Polish about his work in Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. As an architect and public historian, she has worked on museums and exhibits related to Jewish history, the protection of historic shtetls, and the study Jewish hiding places during the Holocaust. She recently served as a research assistant at the Urban History Center in Lviv, Ukraine.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine underway, the future of her research is uncertain, although she is more concerned about her former colleagues.
David emphasized that the award is not limited to historians or scholars; archaeologists, artists, people who manage local archives, and anyone in their early or mid-career years working to shed light on the human past can be nominated. This year, a committee of late-career historians reviewed more than 400 submissions before choosing a list of finalists from which the jury ultimately made its selections.
The historians of the painting will soon be revealed. Their names have been kept secret to avoid any outside pressure to choose certain candidates.
The 2022 winners besides Romik and Welch, according to the Dan David Foundation, are:
Mirjam Brusius, a cultural historian who studies how objects ended up in museums in a colonial context.
Bartow Elmore, an environmental historian who investigates multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Monsanto.
Tyrone Freeman, who studies the history of philanthropy in the African-American community.
Verena Krebs, cultural historian specializing in medieval Ethiopia and Euro-African relations in Western Christendom.
Efthymia Nikita, osteoarchaeologist studying the skeletal remains of women and slaves in the Mediterranean world.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, artist and public historian who created the Pan-African Cultural Encyclopedia, an open source archive of African arts.
Kristina Richardson, a historian of the medieval Islamic world, has focused on non-elite groups such as Roma printers.