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ASU receives National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant for Historic Dyess Colony reconstruction


JONESBORO, Ark. — Arkansas State University received a challenge grant of $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to restore and reconstruct buildings at the Historic Dyess Colony, an agricultural resettlement colony during the New Deal era, which includes the Johnny Cash boyhood home.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites, received word late last week of the challenge grant. The funds will be applied primarily toward rebuilding the historic theater in the Dyess Colony Center as a visitor and welcome center. Challenge grants require a three-to-one match, meaning that, to receive the full $500,000 grant, ASU must raise an additional $1.5 million in matching funds for Dyess Colony projects.  

“This challenge grant gives us tremendous momentum for developing the Historic Dyess Colony as a major heritage site for the state and the region,” said Hawkins. “Dyess is a remarkable story of a unique federal experiment during the New Deal to help farmers in the midst of the Great Depression. 

“The NEH grant brings us much closer to being able to tell that story, as well as the impact that growing up in Dyess had on a young man who grew up to be Johnny Cash.”

Hawkins went on to say this project would link with other historic agricultural sites owned by ASU, including the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Piggott.

These four properties tell a comprehensive 19th and 20th century story of people and their relationships with the land in the Mississippi River Delta.

“The story tells of the transition from slavery to tenant farming at Lake Village, the evolution of tenant farming and its subsequent abuses leading to formation of a union at Tyronza, an example of a tenant farming system leading to land ownership at Piggott, and a federal cooperative effort to give destitute farmers, including the family of music icon Johnny Cash, a chance for a new start in life,” continued Hawkins. “These stories transcend the Arkansas Delta, presenting a national saga of the quest for land, life on the land, and the distinctive bond that develops between people and the land.”

Approximately, $500,000 has already been raised toward the required match and Hawkins noted that ASU has an additional five years to raise the remaining amount. Hawkins is seeking additional grants and said that the Johnny Cash family is committed to assisting with raising funds through the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival to benefit the Dyess boyhood home.

ASU’s heritage sites provide a rural tourism model that totally integrates humanities programming into preservation activities and provides an authentic historic context for the development of long-term educational programming. Through the combination of restoration and humanities activities, ASU expects to enhance the social and economic viability of impoverished Arkansas Delta towns, as well as providing exemplary educational and research opportunities for scholars, students, and the general public.

Along with interpretive exhibits for visitors in the restored Dyess Colony buildings, the extensive humanities programming will include:

  • Professional development workshops for teachers incorporating the history of the region,
  • Interdisciplinary credit and non-credit classes related to artist projects of the New Deal,
  • Educational tours tied to Arkansas curriculum frameworks,
  • 1930s era film showings and discussions (Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth, etc.),
  • A Depression-era literature course,
  • Seminars on the impact of the land and hard times on music of the region (including influences on Johnny Cash),
  • Workshops related to 1930s lifestyles (such as canning and preserving fruits and vegetables),
  • Opportunities for ongoing research and field work for ASU Heritage Studies Ph.D. students. 

Hawkins pointed out that the $500,000 NEH grant brings the total raised to date for the Dyess Colony project to $1.87 million, including three grants totaling $1,000,000 through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) and $373,000 in concert proceeds and private contributions.              

The ASU grant was part of $17.5 million in grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities for 246 humanities projects than span academic disciplines.