Nell Irvin Painter

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Nell Irvin Painter
Nell Irvin Painter.jpg
Nell Elizabeth Irvin

(1942-08-02) August 2, 1942 (age 79)
Alma materUniversity of California at Berkeley
University of California at Los Angeles
Harvard University
Rhode Island School of Design
EmployerPrinceton University (emerita)
Known forAfrican American Literature; American History; American Slavery
Spouse(s)Glenn Shafer
  • Frank Irvin (father)
  • Dona McGruder (mother)

Nell Irvin Painter (born Nell Elizabeth Irvin; August 2, 1942) is an American historian notable for her works on United States Southern history of the nineteenth century. She is retired from Princeton University as the Edwards Professor of American History Emerita.[1] She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians[2] and as president of the Southern Historical Association.[3]

Early life[edit]

She was born as Nell Irvin in Houston, Texas, to Dona Lolita (McGruder) Irvin and Frank Edward Irvin.[4] Her mother held a degree from Houston College for Negroes (1937) and later taught in the public schools of Oakland, California. Her father had to drop out of college in 1937 during the Great Depression; he eventually trained for work as a laboratory technician. He worked for years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he trained many students in lab techniques.[5] She had an older brother Frank, who died young.

Her family moved to Oakland, California, when she was ten weeks old.[5] They were part of the second wave of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the Deep South to urban centers; from the 1940s to 1970, many migrated to the West Coast for jobs related to the growing defense industry, especially in California. Some of their relatives had been in California since the 1920s.[6]


Painter attended the Oakland Public Schools, including Oakland Technical High School, from which she graduated in 1959.[6][7]

She earned her B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964. During her undergraduate years, she studied French medieval history at the University of Bordeaux, France, 1962–63. As a postgraduate, she also studied abroad at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, 1965–66. In 1967, she completed an M.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1974, she earned an M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University.[3]

After her retirement from Princeton, Painter returned to school at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where she received a BFA in art in 2009.[8] She next earned an MFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 2011.[9] Her first memoir, Old in Art School, reflects on this experience.[10]


After receiving her Ph.D., Painter worked as an assistant professor and then an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1980 to 1988 she was a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1988 she became a professor of history at Princeton University. In 1990–91 she was acting director of Princeton's Program in Afro-American Studies, and in 1991 she was named the Edwards Professor of American History. From 1997 to 2000 she was director of the Program in African-American Studies.[4] She served as a professor at Princeton until her retirement in 2005.


External video
video icon Interview with Painter on Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, December 8, 1996, C-SPAN Booknotes
video icon Presentation by Painter on Creating Black Americans, December 14, 2005, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Painter on The History of White People, March 23, 2010, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Painter on The History of White People, September 25, 2010, C-SPAN

Painter has written the following eight books as of 2018. In addition, she has written many reviews, essays, and articles. Her latest essay (from 2020, called My Corona Occupation) is about her experience with making art and writing during the pandemic. [read more on]

  • Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. Norton. 1976. ISBN 978-0-393-00951-4.
  • The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South. 1979. ISBN 978-0674601109.
  • Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919. W. W. Norton. 1989. ISBN 978-0-393-30588-3.
  • Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. W.W. Norton. 1997. ISBN 978-0-393-31708-4.
  • Southern History Across the Color Line. UNC Press Books. 2002. ISBN 978-0-8078-5360-3.
  • Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-513755-2.
  • The History of White People. W. W. Norton. 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-07949-4. A 'New York Times bestseller.[11]
  • Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. Counterpoint Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1640090613.

In addition to her writing, she creates art revolving around the discrimination against African Americans and displays this work at her annual art events.


Painter has received honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Wesleyan University, and Yale University, among other institutions.[12] In 1986 she received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.[13]

Personal life[edit]

In 1989, Painter married the statistician Glenn Shafer,[14] co-creator of the Dempster–Shafer theory.[15][better source needed]


  1. ^ "Distinguished Lecture by Nell Irvin Painter". Harvard University History and Literature. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
  2. ^ "Nell Irvin Painter". Public Affairs Television. February 29, 2008. Retrieved May 29, 2009.
  3. ^ a b "Nell Irvin Painter Home Page". Retrieved July 5, 2010.
  4. ^ a b "Nell Irvin Painter: Biography". The History Makers. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Frank E. Irvin, Sr. (December 27, 2004). "Frank E. Irvin, Sr. (autobiography)" (PDF). Retrieved July 5, 2010.
  6. ^ a b "An Oral History With Williams (Bil) Banks" (PDF). The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  7. ^ "Nell Irvin Painter, Class of 1959". School Historical Archive. March 30, 2015. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  8. ^ "Nell Painter". Art in Print. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  9. ^ "A Reading and Conversation with Nell Irvin Painter". RISD Museum. February 27, 2019. Retrieved September 14, 2020.
  10. ^ "Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Hardcover)". Women & Children First. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  11. ^ "Nell Irvin Painter". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved June 17, 2018.
  12. ^ "Nell Irvin Painter", Department of History, Princeton University.
  13. ^ "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982–1990, Page 3". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  14. ^ Benshoff, Adam (Fall 2001). "Nell Painter". Pennsylvania Center for the Book. The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  15. ^ Curriculum Vitae for Glenn Shafer.

External links[edit]