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Blair LM Kelley selected as new director of the Center for the Study of the American South

blair lm kelley.jpg
Blair LM Kelley poses for a picture in her office on July 13, 2023. Kelley will serve as the new director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

Blair LM Kelley, a historian and scholar of the African American experience, will serve as the new director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

She joined UNC's faculty in the Department of American Studies as the Joel R. Williamson Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in January 2023. Kelley stepped into her new role on July 1, which includes being the co-director of the Southern Futures initiative.

When she first saw the open director position, she said that it was a jewel drawing her in as both a scholar and an administrator. 

“I want to make sure that CSAS is a welcoming and special place and an inclusive place for all students,” Kelley said. “I am excited about that aspect of it, the really public-facing front porch of the University that CSAS can be.” 

CSAS is a research center for the study of Southern culture in the past, present and future that aims to uplift the diversity of perspectives found in the region. The Southern Futures Initiative uses the arts and humanities to promote equity, justice and positive change in the South.  

Kelley has found community at the center even before stepping into this role, she said.

Ayşe Erginer, the executive editor of Southern Cultures, the center's scholarly journal, served as acting director for the center in 2022.

She said in an email that a committee made up of faculty and staff searched for a director that was a senior scholar in the humanities with demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and publications related to the study of the South. The committee wanted someone that would bring leadership and administrative talent, as well as a clear vision for the next steps that the center, UNC and the field could reach. 

“We couldn't be more excited to work with Blair and to help her execute her vision for the Center for many years to come,” Erginer said in an email.

Before coming to UNC, Kelley worked at N.C. State University as a professor in the Department of History and then as the assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs in NCSU's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Jeff Braden is a professor of psychology and served as the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at N.C. State from 2008 to 2021, and said he was always impressed by Kelley's ability to take ideas about equity and transform them into institutional changes. 

“She listens, she seeks to figure out what it is that you need and that you want,” Braden said. “She connects that with what she thinks we need, we want and then looks for those areas of consensus, builds bridges.” 

The center is getting ready to celebrate its 30th anniversary and the Southern Oral History Program, which records Southern experiences, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Kelley said the center plans to celebrate its anniversary with a spirit of reflection on the past, present and future. 

“I think it's a great time for us both to reflect on what's been accomplished and see how we can be present for our campus community and the wider community in this moment,” Kelley said.

Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor emeritus in the Department of American Studies, served as interim director for CSAS from July 2022 to June 2023. She said that Kelley will be able to utilize her ability to listen in her new role. 

“Nobody more than an oral historian knows how to listen, but she will listen to the historic voices that are in conversation in this space,” Cohen said.

Cohen ultimately hopes that Kelley will reintroduce the center to the UNC community so people can take advantage of their resources to help them create the South they want to live in. 

Kelley is excited about the ways that the center can support both students and faculty. 

“I want this to be a space of innovation and collaboration," she said. "I love hearing from students. I love knowing what they're thinking about and what their concerns and visions might be for the future." 

Kelley is the first Black woman to serve as the director of CSAS. 

She said that she's familiar with being the first Black woman to serve in her various roles, an experience she described as a "mixed bag," because she wishes other Black women had been given these opportunities before her. Still, she said that she is happy to serve the community, state and nation in these roles.

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“I'm hoping that the spaces that I have taken up in my career have made pathways for others,” Kelley said. “And so really, that's my job, is to make sure that I'm broadening and delineating spaces for a variety of people to come in behind me.”

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