Profile: Nell Irvin Painter (1942-)

Nell Irvin Painter 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. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and as president of the Southern Historical Association.

Early life

She was born as Nell Irvin in Houston, Texas, to Dona Lolita (McGruder) Irvin and Frank Edward Irvin. 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.  She had an older brother Frank, who died young.

Her family moved to Oakland, California, when she was ten weeks old. 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.


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

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.

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. She next earned an MFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 2011. Her first memoir, Old in Art School, reflects on this experience.


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. She served as a professor at Princeton until her retirement in 2005.

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