Richards Center executive director and Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Middle American History William Blair will retire in June after twenty-one years at Penn State. Blair, a Penn State graduate, joined the Department of History faculty in 1998. As the director of the Richards Center, he oversaw its growth into one of the leading sites for the study of the Civil War era in the country. In 2003, George and Ann Richards endowed the center with a naming gift. Two years later, Blair spearheaded the center’s successful application for a We the People challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that contributed $4,000,000 to the center’s endowment. During his tenure, the center has received more than $9,000,000 in pledges, providing critical support for the Center’s mission to promote the advancement of Civil War era studies, enhance graduate education at Penn State, and provide internship opportunities for undergraduates. The Center also has served as a pipeline for establishing four endowed professorships in the Department of History.
Under Blair’s leadership, the Richards Center has spurred Civil War era scholarship through its signature lecture/book series and peer-reviewed journal. The Steven (’69) and Janice Brose Distinguished Lecture and Book series have produced more than 50 lectures and 10 books on Civil War era topics since 1998. Blair also published over 200 authors during his editorship of Civil War History from 2000 to 2010 and the Journal of the Civil War Era from 2011 through 2015. He was the founding editor of the JCWE, which was recognized by the Library Journal as one of the top ten new periodicals in the nation during 2011. In addition to promoting scholarship in the history of the Civil War era, Blair and the Richards Center also assisted teacher education on the history of race, slavery, and the slave trade through the UNESCO Breaking the Silence program. For undergraduates, the Center during his tenure has placed roughly fifty interns at historic sites throughout the country, with about a third of those individuals finding careers in the academy or in public history.
Blair earned his PhD at Penn State in 1995. He is the author or editor of half a dozen books, including, most recently, With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (UNC Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize in 2015. Blair earned numerous awards for his scholarship and teaching at Penn State, including the Welch Alumni Award and the Class of 1993 Distinction in the Humanities Award, both received from the College of the Liberal Arts in 2003 and 2009, and The President’s Award for Excellence in Academic Integration in 2011. In addition, the Society of Civil War Historians presented him with its lifetime achievement award during the Southern Historical Association annual meeting in November. In recognition of his scholarship and service to the university and the history profession, he was appointed the Walter L. and Helen P. Feree Professor of Middle American History in 2015. History Department Head Michael Kulikowski reflected, “Under Bill’s leadership, the Richards Center became one of the main sites for innovative, groundbreaking research on the Civil War era, meaningfully expanding the boundaries of what studying the Civil War can mean.” In retirement, Blair will complete his latest book manuscript, Murders and Outrages, which chronicles the vast extent of violence committed against freedpeople in the South, as recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction, and wrap up a second book on one hundred years of black history at what is now Arlington National Cemetery.