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Published on November 12th, 2009 | by thevyne


Spotlight On: Nell Irvin Painter, PhD


Photo Courtey of Robin Holland

“Because black women have been harder than men to fit into cliches of race, we often disappear… Disregarded or forgotten or, when remembered, misconstrued, the symbolic history of black women has not functioned in the same way as the symbolic history of black men.” – Nell Irvin Painter, PhD


Historian. Artist. Educator. Author. World Traveler. Nell Irvin Painter, PhD is one of the leading and foremost authorities specializing in the experiences of African American women in the 19th and early 20th century. 

Born in Houston, TX, at the Houston Hospital for Negroes, Nell Irvin Painter was the only daughter to Dona and Frank Irvin. Shortly after Nell’s birth and undoubtedly to create better opportunities for themselves and their daughter, Nell’s parents moved her to Northern California. It was here that Nell attended Oakland Public Schools and began to cultivate what would be an impeccable educational journey. 

Perhaps it was the influence of her father, a trained Chemist who worked for many years in the Chemistry department of the University of California at Berkeley, or her mother, an administrator for Oakland public schools and celebrated author, that compelled Nell to pursue her passion for education. As an Anthropology major at the University of California at Berkely, Nell developed an interest in the culture of Africa and the African Diaspora. In lieu of courses on American history, she chose to supplement her studies with travel abroad. She spent summers in Nigeria and France before receiving her bachelor’s degree. 

Nell returned again to Africa, this time to Ghana, upon completing her undergraduate studies to attend a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies. It was her experiences in Africa that reignited her interest in history. So much so that she returned to the United States and earned a master’s degree in history at the University of California at Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter she enrolled in a doctorate program at Harvard University and began shifting her focus from African to American history. 

Since obtaining her doctorate, Nell has held several professorial positions in such prestigious institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and most recently at Princeton University. Likewise she holds honorary doctorates from Yale University, Wesleyan University, Dartmouth College and SUNY New Paltz. The fruits of her educational labor can be seen across the pages of the countless articles and seven books she has authored to date, including the critically acclaimed Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol.

Nell is recently retired from Princeton University but remains very active in the academic and historian community, can frequently be seen on television panels or being interviewed on topics ranging from politics and classism to African American women’s issues and American history. She’s even begun indulging her talent for art and is currently enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program for painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. After watching her recently on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program and previously in an interview with Bill Moyers in 2008, it’s clear to see why she was one of the most popular professors at Princenton and is one of the most celebrated historians of our time.

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