Ayers is a native of Kingsport, who graduated from Sullivan Central High School and the University of Tennessee. He is married to the former Abby Brown, also of Kingsport, and is the son of Billie Ayers of Colonial Heights, a longtime teacher in the Sullivan County public schools.
The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened citizen engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.
Ayers was recognized for his commitment to making American history widely accessible across a range of audiences, vehicles, and media.
“I am humbled by this award, for I have benefited from the help of many allies at every step of the way,” Ayers said. “My goal is always the same, regardless of the medium: to include many voices, from the past and in the present, in every conversation.”
A longtime champion of excellence in teaching, Ayers was named a National Professor of the Year in 2003 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching. In addition to teaching thousands of students in his own courses, Ayers has engaged a broad range of teachers in the most effective approaches to addressing difficult historical questions during the summer seminars he leads, sponsored by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
He has played a pioneering role in digital scholarship since the inception of the field in the early 1990s, overseeing the “Valley of the Shadow” project, devoted to the American Civil War. Ayers continues that work through his collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab based at the University of Richmond. The lab is developing a Digital Atlas of American History, which is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and will use the power of animated, data-rich maps to help students, scholars, and others see change over time.
Ayers is co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio program “BackStory With The American History Guys,” broadcast on 34 stations around the country each week and downloaded more than 2 million times through podcasts.
Ayers is the author of four books and editor of seven. “The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction” was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863” won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history.
Ayers serves or has served on the boards of numerous historical and cultural organizations, as well as on the boards of the American Council on Education, the National Humanities Center, the National Council on the Humanities, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for History Education.