Lee Formwalt is both an undergraduate and doctoral alumnus of Catholic University. His career has spanned both academic history and public engagement with historical issues. For more than twenty years he was a professor and, latterly, dean at Albany State University, University System of Georgia. From 1999 to 2009 he was Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American History. From there he went on to serve as the Executive Director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) in Albany, GA, an organization and museum devoted to the study and presentation of the Albany and Southwest Georgia civil rights movement. His books include his co-edited volumes, The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe: From Philadelphia to New Orleans, 1799–1820 and The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1980, 1984). His 2014 book Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Southwest Georgia Freedom Struggle, 1814-2014 won the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award.
Lee can point to many watersheds in his career that strengthened his commitment to public history. One was in 1994, with his involvement in writing the New Georgia Guide. “This was a joint project of the Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press to produce for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta a state guide modeled on the 48 state guides produced by the Federal Writers Project of the WPA. The state was divided into nine regions and I was assigned Southwest Georgia. Each regional essay was not to be a history of the region, but rather an essay informed by history. For me, this was the first professional writing, besides an occasional newspaper column, that was not traditional historical scholarship.
“Early on I determined that there were two themes that characterized southwest Georgia: race and agriculture. So when I visited each of the two dozen counties in my region, I made sure I spoke with the county extension agent and folks in the African American community. I was to write about the region’s culture, what made it unique. So I visited the U.S. 19 Racetrack, a dragstrip, a mile or so from my house that I had never been to before. I wrote about Whigham’s Rattlesnake Roundup, the power of religious music in the African American community, and the literature produced by southwest Georgia writers. Reading novels and short stories was something I had not done in a long while. I was a historian, and I had way too many monographs and articles by professional historians on my ‘to read’ pile. Reading fiction was a luxury I could ill afford. Now I was reading fiction without any guilt whatsoever. It was liberating. The whole New Georgia Guide experience was liberating. When I was finished with the 40-page essay, my whole attitude as a professional historian had changed. I no longer felt confined to my scholarly cloister. There was a bigger world out there that needed to be sampled and tasted.”
Another watershed came when Lee became the OAH Executive Director. “Here was administration which I loved, but even better it was administration in my field – American history! The timing was perfect for someone like me. OAH was not looking for an Ivy League professor or someone from a major flagship state university. The organization had recently revised its mission statement and wanted someone who could help it expand its membership beyond the university classroom to include those who taught at four-year colleges, community colleges, and precollegiate schools as well as public historians – those who practiced outside academe. After I was hired we turned our attention to precollegiate teaching and improving our teaching publication, the OAH Magazine of History. We created a series of summer workshops for community college members’ professional development. In public history, we expanded our collaboration with the National Park Service. And supporting these efforts was a new expansion of our development efforts. All of these efforts had the full support of the OAH executive board in my first 5-year term. But a couple of presidents later came along who felt OAH need to revert to its more traditional focus of supporting the scholarly efforts of its leading members rather than worrying about our members in the trenches at two- and four-year institutions and high schools. The challenges I faced in my second term taught me some important lessons that I brought back with me to the Albany Civil Rights Institute.”
After his work for the OAH, Lee planned to retire and write his memoirs. But then he got a phone call asking him to return to Georgia to run the newly expanded ACRI. “The work kept me very busy. I had to totally revise the docents’ script so that we told the story of the Long Civil Rights Movement starting with slavery in antebellum southwest Georgia, with freedom coming in 1865, black men voting in 1867, and on through Redemption and Jim Crow and the lynching of 122 African Americans in southwest Georgia between 1880 and 1930, and then to the classical Albany Movement and the continuation of the civil rights struggle right up to today. There was no development strategy, so we created a fundraising plan. We cultivated the media and appeared regularly in the local newspapers and on the local TV stations. Our usual audience for the monthly community nights ranged from 40 to 100 people. It was clear we were satisfying a thirst in our community for knowing more about our difficult racial past and what it said about the problems we face today.”
Lee’s commitment to public engagement with the history of civil rights for all who have faced discrimination has been the enduring hallmark of his career. “My last two years in Albany reinforced for me the importance of a community knowing its past. So much so, that I have committed myself to going back and finishing the revision and expansion of my 2014 book on southwest Georgia's 200-year freedom struggle. My friends and others in Albany deserve to have the full account of their past available to them. And it’s my job as a historian to do it. In a way, my career – my life in history – has come full circle. It began in southwest Georgia with me writing about Albany and it appears it will end in south central Indiana with me writing about Albany.”