Mysteries of AHA Prizes Revealed (Somewhat)

James Grossman, May 2013

Nobody will ever get rich winning an AHA prize. We wish it were otherwise, and if anyone reading this article is hereby motivated to write a substantial check for a prize in any aspect of historical work, please contact me and I will retract that statement forthwith. Barring such good fortune, our prizes will continue to serve their honorific function, with a small sum included as a token of our members' appreciation for the winner's contribution to the discipline.

"Small" in the case of the AHA means $500 or $1,000, depending on the size of a given prize fund. And this is why I'm writing now about prizes: in response to members who have expressed a feeling, from time to time, that a bit of mystery surrounds our awards. Where does the money come from? Why are there prizes in some fields but not in others? Why are some prizes more lucrative than others? Who decides what is eligible?

These and other likely questions share a single answer: "It depends." Prize funds have emerged in different ways over the years, especially before recent efforts to rationalize the process. The first contingency is always the "deed of gift": the specifications delineated by the donor of a prize fund. Except when it's not-i.e., when there is no single donor, which has been the case with more-recently established awards. In those cases, the AHA works with an organizing committee to define the terms of a fund.

Most of the AHA's earlier prizes were established by a single donor or by a family. These seem to have come in over the years-beginning a century ago-without any sort of plan or special effort. After all, we began as a group of (largely) gentleman scholars: men of means who had connections to other men (and women) of means. A prize was a good way to honor someone. The AHA accepted donations and applied the income to individual prize funds. The donor specified the field, usually by geographic area, sometimes by chronological scope as well.

Lacking standard procedures, prize funds started with different amounts, increasing over the years according to changing AHA investment policies. In 2002, the AHA set a $50,000 minimum to establish a prize fund, thereby guaranteeing sufficient resources for a modest but respectable award and growth to keep pace with inflation. Unfortunately, some of the existing funds already stood beneath that floor, and the current landscape is uneven. Some of our prize funds yield sufficient income (based on a three-year rolling average) to generate an award of $1,000 along with modest growth, and some don't (in those cases, we will award $500 until the endowment fund reaches a suitable level). This past year, an effort spearheaded by the Coordinating Council for Women in History brought the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History to a level that will guarantee the award's viability in perpetuity, and perhaps even enable us to complement the book prize with a small research award for graduate students.

Other funds also require augmentation. Joseph Losos has recently added $10,000 to the fund for the James Henry Breasted Prize (awarded to a book in any field focusing on a period before 1000 CE), bringing it closer to the $50,000 threshold. Even further below that target is the Wesley-Logan Prize in African diaspora history, which we are initiating a campaign to increase, armed with early pledges from a group of the field's senior scholars to match donations by other members.

Existing prizes, therefore, have been defined by a combination of donor interests and the enthusiasm of members willing to raise money to recognize work in particular fields. But what of new awards? We occasionally receive bequests from members whose dedication to the AHA and to a particular field of inquiry motivates them to provide the means by which work in that field can be recognized. The AHA Council must then decide whether the field defined by the bequest is appropriate to our institutional mission.

More often in recent years, new prizes have been initiated by members prepared to undertake a lot of hard work. This begins with a proposal to the AHA Research Division, which then makes a recommendation to Council. Decisions generally rest on three criteria:

  • Is the field delineated by the prize sufficiently broad to generate a meaningful range of submissions?

  • Is the field currently missing from the Association's prize roll?

  • What are the chances of being able to raise $50,000 for this prize?

For a long time, AHA prizes reflected the Eurocentric frame of the discipline as a whole. More recently, hard work on the part of scholars in African and South Asian history, along with the generosity of our members, has added those fields to the list. With the depletion of a Latin American prize fund, created before the new rules, as a finite sum to be spent down, members in Latin American history are organizing a fundraising committee chaired by former AHA presidents John Coatsworth and Barbara Weinstein. The Friedrich Katz Prize in Latin American History will honor the best book published in English focusing on Central or South America, including the Caribbean.

In some cases, members establish a prize as one way to recognize the significance of a relatively new field of historical scholarship. The untimely death of our colleague Jerry Bentley, for example, has led a group of world historians to undertake a fundraising effort for a world history book prize, chaired by Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Alan Karras.

The establishment of new prizes is not without controversy, as some members have questioned the wisdom of an honor roll that grows so long as to diminish the importance of each individual award-a modern version of the proliferation of honors.

But ours is a wide-ranging discipline, whose vitality benefits from the emergence of new areas of inquiry and new ways of thinking. It is unwise to create awards too quickly: a narrowly cast endowment to award work in a field that shrinks significantly within a generation bequeaths a legacy of dubious value to future generations. At the same time, benefactors and members who wish to honor the work of our colleagues should be encouraged. It would be hard to argue that American culture over values the work of historians. The AHA's mission ought to include a commitment to do all we can to recognize the contributions made to, and by, our discipline.-James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.Contributions to these prize funds can be made by check or at the AHA's donations web page. For additional information about AHA prizes or contributions, please contact the AHA's development and programs manager, Dana Schaffer.