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Painter, Nell Irvin (1942–) - U.S. History, Southern

university american harvard california

Nell Irvin Painter was born August 2, 1941, in Houston, Texas, of African-American ancestry. The daughter of Frank Edward Irvin, Sr., and Dona Lolita McGruder Irvin, Nell moved with her family to Oakland, California, as an infant. Her parents, who met as students at Houston College for Negroes, both had careers in education. They instilled in her the importance of making connections with the larger community (by taking her to the ballet, opera, and theater) and encouraged her to explore the African cultures of her ancestors.

Painter attended public schools in Oakland and then the University of California at Berkeley. She spent the summer of 1962 in Kano, Nigeria, with her parents, as part of the Project Crossroads Africa. Along with other Nigerian and American students, she constructed a school building for the indigenous people of the area. A a result of this experience Painter chose to study anthropology, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1964.

When Painter returned to Africa, this time to Ghana, she discovered that history, particularly history that discussed imperialism and social change, provided the kinds of intellectual challenges she wanted. She then attended the University of California, earning a master’s degree in history in 1967, and Harvard University, earning the Ph.D. in 1974. As Caroline Moseley has written about Painter, her own life taught her to focus upon “more than one variable at a time—class, race and gender all at once.” That has been her mark as a historian. Painter was also greatly influenced by two other historians, Frank Fidel, her mentor at Harvard, and John Hope Franklin, with whom she often consulted.

Painter’s first academic appointment was at the Ghana Institute of Languages, where she taught from 1964 to 1965. She has also taught at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina, Hunter College of the City University of New York, and Princeton University, where she now teaches, and was named Edwards Professor of American History in 1991.

Author of thirty publications, including three books, Painter has written about black Americans during Reconstruction, Sojourner Truth, and multiculturalism on the American university campus. Professor Painter has received numerous awards and fellowships, among them the Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women; the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Association of University Women; and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Nell Irvin Painter was married to Colin Painter from 1965 to 1966. In 1989 she married Glenn R. Shafer, who teaches at the University of Kansas. She is the stepmother of Richard and Dennis Shafer. Her hobbies include swimming, jogging, and knitting.

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