College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

History Professor Chosen for Fellowship with National Humanities Center

Despite an impressive collection of accolades and awards amassed over a 40-year career in academia, Elizabeth Payne thinks about what she’ll be doing this fall and gets excited like a first-grader anticipating the first day of school.

On Sept. 1, Payne begins a yearlong fellowship with The National Humanities Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. The University of Mississippi history professor is one of only 28 scholars to be selected from a pool of more than 400 applicants worldwide, which makes the fellowship an unquestioned achievement. But she’s even more thrilled about interacting with the other scholars.

Dr. Elizabeth Payne

Dr. Elizabeth Payne

“I’m a little scared, but in a good way,” Payne said with a chuckle. “These scholars are assembled from across the spectrum of the humanities: literature, history, classics, philosophy and religion. They’re from different ages, countries and backgrounds. And we’re expected to socialize together, to eat together, to share ideas and research. It’s a dream come true for me.”

Payne expects to have plenty of chances to interact with scholars from American universities such as Princeton, Yale, Duke, UCLA, Northwestern and NYU. She’ll also swap ideas with fellows from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil and the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Germany.

“We try to cast a wide net,” said Kent Mullikin, NHC vice president and deputy director. “The rationale for an institution like this is to maximize the possibility of our fellows discovering unexpected areas of mutual interest. It’s really the imagination and intelligence of the people we bring together that makes for an interesting community of learning.”

Payne, the first NHC fellow from UM, was chosen based on her research on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a little-known biracial organization formed to protect the interests of white and black tenant farmers and sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Even though President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act was meant to spread wealth among tenant farmers and sharecroppers at the local level, landowners pocketed an unfair share of the government funds. United by common interests, black and white farmers came together to form the STFU, Payne said.

“It was the most significant biracial initiative in the cotton South,” said Payne, who represented the Methodist Youth Fellowship as a lobbyist for the Civil Rights Bill during the 1960s. “Many who know of the STFU consider it a precursor to the civil rights movement. I’d like to shed light on this overlooked chapter of Southern history.”

Payne plans to publish the book “Shattering White Solidarity: A History of The Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union” after her NHC fellowship. Mullikin said her research should attract interest beyond just her peers at the NHC.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the kind of study she’s doing at both UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, where a lot of people are interested in Southern history and civil rights history,” he said. “It’s a very important topic and this particular story hasn’t been told.”

Payne expects her colleagues at the NHC to scrutinize her work, which she hopes will help give her book mainstream appeal beyond the academic community.

“They’ll find gaps in what I need to explain,” she said. “I want to produce a work of general interest that’s not limited to historians. The other fellows will help me write in a more accessible way.”

“To be chosen for a National Humanities Center Fellowship is a signal honor and reflects the significance of Dr. Payne’s research,” said Glenn Hopkins, dean of the UM College of Liberal Arts. “She is most deserving of this important award.”

“Elizabeth Payne is the first member of our university’s faculty to be offered a fellowship by the National Humanities Center,” added Joseph Ward, chair of the Department of History. “It is significant recognition of the high regard her professional peers have for her research into the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.”

Also, the Mississippi Historical Society recently awarded the 2008 Elbert Hilliard Oral History Prize to Payne and five of her graduate students. Payne and her students produced “Makin’ Do,” an oral history project featuring women who grew up in northern Mississippi during World War II.

“Receiving that award was very affirming for me, and I was happy to have the light shown on north Mississippi,” she said. “And I was happy for my students because they were recognized for the award as well.”

At a stage in her career when many peers are looking to slow down, Payne shows no signs of doing so.

“I’ve wanted to be an NHC Fellow for a long time; I thought, however, that there was no chance because I’ve spent much of my career in administration,” Payne said. “I want to keep doing new things. I don’t want to sit down and let the grass grow around me.”

For more information about the UM Department of History, call 662-915-7148 or go to

To view the award-winning oral history project “Makin’ Do,” visit and click on Documentary Projects.