Antifascism in Ohio: Humanities Director Speaks Out

November 19, 2017
Pat Williamsen

Pat Williamsen

Last August, in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ohio Humanities issued a powerful letter condemning white supremacists who attacked antifascist protestors. We speak with Executive Director Pat Williamsen about the need for public humanists to take a stand. “America has forgotten itself.”

Few people know Ohio and its history better than Pat Williamsen. She has worked with Ohio Humanities, the state’s humanities council, for more than 30 years, serving as Executive Director since 2011. On August 25, 10 days after white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia and killed Heather Heyer, Williamsen forcefully condemned those events in a public letter that we reprint here. An accomplished photographer and writer, Williamsen studied English in Toledo and holds an M.A. in Film History and Theory from Ohio State University. She speaks slowly and reflectively—but she rarely hesitates.

Although they are largely funded by the federal government, I understand the state humanities councils operate as independent non-profits, building bridges between academia and the general public.

We create opportunities for the general public to use the humanities as it navigates through everyday life. Humanities scholars these days are not necessarily encouraged by their universities to write for a broad audience. But I think that may be one of the reasons why we are where we are as a society. These days, I find myself trying to parse through the moment that America is in. I don’t think it started at the conclusion of the presidential election process in November, or at the party conventions in the summer of 2016. This phenomenon has been brewing for a long time—whether we’re talking about the polarization of our civic discourse, the rise of white supremacy, or even yet another mass shooting.

What conclusion do you reach?

I keep coming back to the notion that America has forgotten itself. We’ve forgotten so much about our history—or maybe we never knew it in the first place. The short shrift we give to the humanities in our public school systems, colleges, and universities really has done a disservice to the American people. Why are we even talking about white supremacy now? Why don’t we have a better grasp of that? What happened 150 years ago that created an organization like the Ku Klux Klan? Why did the Klan have a remarkable resurgence in membership in the 1920s? Why was there a hugely successful membership drive right here in Ohio? We pride ourselves on being a fertile ground for abolition. And it’s true that there are many documented routes to freedom across the state. But at the same time, Ohio created black laws that discouraged men and women escaping from bondage from settling here.

“The short shrift we give to the humanities in education really has done a disservice to the American people.”

If we remembered these things and tried to understand those parts of our history, would we be better equipped to deal with these extremist factions now? Would more people be willing to stand up and say that what happened in Charlottesville is wrong? Would we as a culture stand up and say: enough?

Your letter is exemplary not just because it takes a stand but because it creates a teachable moment to actually recall some important chapters of Ohio history.

For that I am indebted to all the scholars in Ohio who, over the course of my career, have introduced me to a more nuanced sense of the state—things I simply didn’t learn when Ohio history was a requirement for the seventh or eighth grade. Actually, I am not sure if students now spend a full year studying Ohio history.

Your letter was clearly born from a sense of moral indignation. What makes it so powerful is in part the fact that it takes an unusually strong position. I imagine writing it and hitting the “send” button can’t have been easy. After all, the institutional pressure is always toward the middle of the road. Instead, you took a stand—that is to say, you took a risk.

We sent that letter out with a fair amount of trepidation. The day after, I received appreciative emails from constituents. It was an emotional moment for me. I realized many others had wanted to make a statement—but didn’t. I feel that we spoke for the community of public humanists in Ohio.

“Many others had wanted to make a statement—but didn’t.”

I did consult with the executive committee of my board of directors. They urged me to make a public statement. Still, we are quite aware that we are living in perilous times. We run the risk of being called effete intellectuals or any number of other things that people ascribe to humanities scholars. But there are points at which silence is not acceptable. And we’ve seen throughout the course of world history what happens when moral people are silent. I realize we’re at a moment when it’s very dangerous to stick your head up above the lip of the foxhole. But as public humanists, how can we not?

Ohio Humanities has helped sponsor ALBA’s Institutes for High School Teachers in 2010, 2012, and 2015. Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College.

Ohio Humanities: A Special Message

August 25, 2017

Just ten days ago, Americans watched horrific news videos of a car plowing in to demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our hearts go out to friends and colleagues in Charlottesville. Ohio Humanities condemns all efforts to discriminate, intimidate, or marginalize our residents.

The divisive racist rhetoric currently on display across the United States should not be tolerated in a democratic society. Ohio Humanities has a long tradition of supporting the discussions that help engaged citizens grapple with difficult ideas. Only together, can we explore the past to build vibrant communities that promise equitable futures for every resident of the United States.

We cannot allow ourselves to believe that white supremacy is a “Southern problem.” After all, the man responsible for the car attack in Charlottesville is from Lucas County.

This past weekend, a Westerville neighborhood was leafletted by white supremacists who attached candies to the flyers, as though a sugar treat could sweeten their message of bigotry. Reports from other towns reveal that communities are quietly removing the graffiti of hate left by vandals on synagogues and mosques.

History is filled with contradictions and conflicting perspectives.

Ohio can proudly point to its history for ending a system of repression and slavery based on color and creed. During the Civil War, Ohio contributed more men and material than any other state to defeat the Confederacy, thus ending slavery in the United States.

And yet, the music and lyrics for “Dixie,” the de facto Confederate anthem, were penned in Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

The Underground Railroad crisscrossed the state, yet Ohio’s legislature enacted a Black Code to discourage free blacks and runaway slaves from settling here.

Home to several Union generals who later became Presidents, Ohio is the birthplace of one of the Civil War’s notorious criminals: William Quantrill was born in Dover.

In the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan membership swelled as Ohioans joined up to protest the influx of Southern blacks and East Europeans seeking jobs in our industrial cities. As late as 1955, a cross-burning in Hillsboro was meant to intimidate black children seeking equal education in that town’s schools.

White supremacists would have us believe that it’s simply a matter of black and white. They lack the fundamental courage to parse our nation’s complicated history or to face contemporary facts of changing demographics. How sad that these hate groups cannot appreciate the invaluable richness that every ethnic group and religious tradition contribute to our communities.

Democracy demands wisdom. That wisdom can be gained only by the participation of individuals willing to explore historic fact and civilly debate differing interpretations of historic events.

Ohio Humanities offers grants and guidance to foster conversations that explore difficult questions. If we can help your community hold a conversation about race and ethnicity in light of current events, please contact us at

Pat Williamsen

Executive Director, Ohio Humanities