Ray Arsenault at the U.S. Supreme Court with former student Earl Lewis, Ph.D., president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

NEH to distribute “Freedom Riders” documentary to 500 U.S. communities

In observance of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Endowment for the Humanities will distribute Freedom Riders, the documentary film based on USF St. Petersburg professor Raymond Arsenault’s award-winning book, to 500 U.S. communities.

It is one of four films the NEH will distribute as part of its Bridging Cultures initiative, Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle. The initiative highlights what scholars call “the long civil rights movement,’’ from before the Civil War through the 1960s, a period that “saw America struggle to make the ideals of freedom and the pursuing of happiness a reality for all,’’ wrote James A. Leach, chairman of the NEH.

The package of films, all of which were funded by the NEH, will be accompanied by “programming resources to guide public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in U.S. history,” according to the NEH. Each participating site will receive up to $1,200 to support public programming exploring the themes of the Created Equal project.

The other three films in the set are The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name and The Loving Story.

Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and co-founder of the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg, attended a reception and dinner Feb. 20 honoring the project at the U.S. Supreme Court. The event featured Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Earl Lewis, Ph.D., president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who was a student of Arsenault’s at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970’s.

The PBS documentary Freedom Riders was based on Arsenault’s , Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The film won three Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.

“The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation is an important milestone, and I feel honored that the NEH selected “Freedom Riders” as one of the four films to be featured in its commemorative initiative,” Arsenault said.

Norine Noonan, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said this is the latest example of high-quality scholarship at USF St. Petersburg. “Ray Arsenanult’s book has illuminated an important chapter in American history,’’ she said. “We are all extremely proud of his accomplishments.”


Two USF St. Petersburg students win Leland Hawes awards in Florida History

Two USF St. Petersburg students have won prestigious Leland M. Hawes awards in Florida history, adding their names to a string of previous winners from USFSP.

Douglas Ponticos, a graduate student in the Florida Studies Program, received the prize for his paper, “Communities of Stone and Glass: Florida’s Brooksville Ridge.” Ponticos is a Brooksville native who was raised in Homosassa, and a graduate of Lecanto High School and Florida State University. After many summers working on family farms, Ponticos cultivated a passion for gardening and food. He is finishing his thesis, a study of the cultural history of the Brooksville Ridge. He dreams of farming and teaching on the Ridge.

Elizabeth Southard, an Anthropology major, received the prize for the best undergraduate paper, “The Cultural Importance of the Prehistoric and Historic History of Weedon Island.” Southard is a Memphis native who moved to Florida in 2003. While a student at USFSP, she developed a passion for archaeology. She spent the summer of 2012 with Professors John and Kathryn Arthur in Ethiopia studying the Gamo people. She recently helped curate the “Butch” Evans artifact collection at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library. Evans was a beloved student in the Florida Studies Program and an avid amateur archaeologist.

Both Southard and Ponticos wrote their seminar papers in Emeritus History Professor Gary Mormino’s Florida history seminar. Mormino is a co-founder of the Florida Studies Program.

The Leland Hawes Prize honors the life work of Leland Hawes, who spent six decades as a reporter, editor and history columnist at the Tampa Tribune. Upon his retirement, the Tampa Bay History Center and the Florida Studies Center at USF Tampa inaugurated the prize to recognize student scholarship in Florida history.

Previous USFSP Hawes Prize recipients include Thom Foley, for his 2008 essay, “Taming of the Hillsborough River;” Brad Massey for his 2009 paper, “The Rise and Fall of a Modern Florida Landmark, Tampa’s Floridan Hotel”; and Lois Ricciardi, for her 2010 paper, “Mary Lou Baker and the Women’s Emancipation Bill of 1942.”

Since 2003, USF St. Petersburg’s Florida Studies Program has shined a light on Florida’s history, culture and environment. No other program in the United States explores a state the way this does. The Masters Program brings together faculty from history, economics, geography, political science, anthropology and other disciplines to explain our state’s identity. For more information go to

Author Bill Belleville

Author to screen film, discuss wonders of St. Johns River

The USF St. Petersburg Florida Studies Program and the Student Environmental Awareness Society present “Florida’s St. Johns River,” a lecture and film hosted by author Bill Belleville at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27.

Belleville, author of River of Lakes: A Journey of Florida’s St. Johns River, will discuss the documentary Water’s Journey: The River Returns at Harbor Hall, 1000 3rd St South. It is free and open to the public.

Produced by Karst Productions, Water’s Journey explains the history of the St. Johns River and its importance to Florida. Belleville will discuss the film and his personal experiences with river.

“Who better to comment on the film and the St. Johns River than the guy who wrote about it?” said Chris Meindl, Ph.D., Florida Studies program director. “Florida Studies is pleased to partner with the Student Environmental Awareness Society for this event.”

Formed 100,000 years ago, the St. Johns River is home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and other water creatures. Before Europeans arrived in Florida, many Native American tribes called the river home. The river runs 300 miles from its marshy headwaters south of Melbourne through Jacksonville.

Belleville is also the author of Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams, and Losing it All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape. He also is co-producer and writer of the documentaries In Marjorie’s Wake: Rediscovering Rawlings, a River & Time and Conch Cowboys.

For more information about the event or the Florida Studies Program, please call Chris Meindl at (727) 873-4872.


Dr. Ray Arsenault (right) attended President Obama's inauguration with Carol Ruth Silver, one of the Freedom Riders.

Witnessing history in Washington, D.C., with someone who made history

Ray Arsenault, Ph.D., the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USF St. Petersburg, attended the inauguration of President Obama on Monday with one of the Freedom Riders whose story he told in an award-winning book.

Carol Ruth Silver was a recent college graduate working at the United Nations when she joined the Freedom Riders movement to protest the segregation of interstate buses in the South and served 39 days in prison. She later graduated from law school, worked as a lawyer, ran for Congress and served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She was the only Freedom Rider who managed to keep a diary during her time behind bars. She smuggled the diary, written on toilet paper, out of prison when she was released.

The diary will be published by the University Press of Mississippi later this year, with an introduction by Arsenault.

It was the first inauguration he ever attended. He and Silver were both there at the invitation of  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not only was it an historic event, he was happy to share it with Silver and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement.

“It was an amazing, unforgettable experience,’’ Dr. Arsenault said.

It was also tiring. He stood for more than six hours with about 100,000 people in a special section about 100 yards from where the president was sworn in.

The night before, Arsenault and his wife, Kathleen, the retired dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, attended the Florida State Ball at the Andrew Mellon Ballroom at the Treasury Department. The ball was a benefit for the Florida House, which serves as the state’s “embassy’’ in Washingon, D.C. Arsenault, co-founder of the Florida Studies Program and chairman of the History and Politics Department in the College of Arts and Sciences at USFSP, collaborated with the Florida House in 2011 as the director of a workshop for Pinellas County social studies teachers on Teaching American History.

Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, won the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award of the Southern Historical Association. A 2010 documentary based on the book won three Emmys and a Peabody Award.


Freedom Riders Documentary Nominated for Three Emmy Awards

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (September 13, 2011) – The documentary based on Ray Arsenault’s award-winning book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, has won awards in three categories of the Primetime Emmy Awards from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The award categories for the documentary Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson and produced by Laurens Grant, are Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming.

The production of the documentary was made possible through a $1 million grant awarded to WGBH Boston from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The documentary, which aired on the PBS American Experience program, is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ We the People project, an initiative to encourage and strengthen teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture through projects that explore significant events and themes in U.S. history and culture.

Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USFSP and a founder of the university’s Florida Studies graduate program, spent nearly 10 years researching the Freedom Rides, interviewing the Riders and immersing himself in a movement that ultimately desegregated interstate travel and launched a wave of Civil Rights reform.

His book, first published in 2006, was re-published in a 2011 abridged edition. In addition to working on and appearing in the documentary, Arsenault helped curate a traveling museum exhibit and led Freedom Ride 2011, a commemorative bus tour with 40 college students from across the country. The book and the documentary inspired Oprah Winfrey to host a Freedom Riders reunion on her TV program in May 2011. Arsenault attended and appeared on the show.

Named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times and one of the best books of 2006 by the Washington Post, Freedom Riders won the Southern Historical Association’s Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Prize as the most important book published in the field of Southern history in 2006. Arsenault is a specialist in the political, social and environmental history of the American South.