Announcing the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards Winners and Finalists | Columbia Journalism School

Announcing the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards Winners and Finalists

Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard are pleased to announce the five winners and the two finalists of the 2019 Lukas Prizes. The awards will be presented at a ceremony on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 at the Nieman Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Awards (two $25,000 prizes): The J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Awards are given annually to aid in the completion of significant works of nonfiction on American topics of political or social concern. The committee envisions the awards as a way of closing the gap between the time and money an author has and the time and money that finishing a book requires.

Winner: Maurice Chammah’s LET THE LORD SORT THEM: Texas and the Death Penalty’s Rise and Fall in America (Crown)

Judges’ citation: LET THE LORD SORT THEM is a powerful, deeply reported, and revelatory book. Through his account of the rise and fall of the death penalty in Texas, Chammah reveals the truth about crime and punishment in America and how the legal system actually works. Through its moving look at the human cost of the death penalty, this compassionate book follows in the best tradition of the Lukas Work-in-Progress Awards to enlarge our understanding of the great political and social issues of our time.

Winner: Steven Dudley’s MARA: The Making of the MS13 (Hanover Square Press)

Judges’ citation: This timely and incisive work, speaking directly to the mission and purpose of the Lukas Work-in-Progress Awards, centers on one immigrant Salvadoran family that represents the complexities of the story of Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the notorious gang that is the U.S. government’s number one target in its efforts to rid the country of “criminal aliens.” Without ever minimizing the brutality of this gang, the book dispels many of the myths surrounding its history and power. More important, MARA is the story of flawed U.S. and Central American policies over many years and the exploitative and unequal systems they create.

2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award Judges: John Duff (chair), MacKenzie Fraser-Bub, and Lucas Wittmann.

J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize ($10,000): The J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize recognizes superb examples of nonfiction writing that exemplify the literary grace, the commitment to serious research, and the original reporting that characterized the distinguished work of the award’s namesake, J. Anthony Lukas. Books must be on a topic of American political or social concern published between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2018.

Winner: Shane Bauer’s AMERICAN PRISON: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment (Penguin Press)

Judges’ citation: After two years as a prisoner in Iran, Shane Bauer goes back inside jail–this time as a guard at the privately run Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, reporting undercover with an audio recorder in his pen, a hidden camera in his thermos, and an eye for novelistic detail. The result, AMERICAN PRISON, ushers us with taut prose into a world in which inmates and guards alike are victims of a profit motive rooted in our nation’s tradition of mingling money-making with incarceration. Never losing sight of the moral complexity of Bauer’s dual role as agent and chronicler of an inhumane system, AMERICAN PRISON is a feat of narrative nonfiction that is brave, disturbing, and urgent.

Finalist: Lauren Hilgers’s PATRIOT NUMBER ONE: American Dreams in Chinatown (Crown)

Judges’ citation: Lauren Hilgers’s PATRIOT NUMBER ONE chronicles the epic journey of Zhuang Liehong from small-time democracy activist in a Chinese fishing village to immigrant refugee in Flushing, Queens, where oppression takes the shape of New York real estate prices, low wages, American bureaucracy, and the English language. Hilgers’s reporting on two continents is broad and deep. Her revelatory, profoundly human tale of this crusading dreamer and his unshakably pragmatic wife, Little Yan, gives us all a personal stake in the politics of China, the struggles of new immigrants, and the ever-changing meaning of the American dream.

2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize Judges: Dale Russakoff (chair), Nate Blakeslee, and Amy Goldstein.

Mark Lynton History Prize ($10,000): The Mark Lynton History Prize is awarded to the book-length work of narrative history, on any subject, that best combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression.  Books must have been published between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2018. This year, two Lynton Prizes will be presented.

Winner: Andrew Delbanco’s THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (Penguin Press)

Judges’ citation: In his eloquent history, Andrew Delbanco elevates fugitive slaves to center stage in antebellum America and challenges conventional wisdom about the Civil War. He focuses on the unintended consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was designed to unify the nation but paradoxically lit the fuse that split it. This overlooked chapter of American history reminds us of the enduring, devastating effects of America’s original accommodation with slavery and of the enslaved men and women who persistently risked their lives to escape bondage. They exposed what might be called America’s founding fiction that the states were ever truly “united.” Vividly written, Delbanco’s THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR conjures echoes from the past that eerily resonate today: the splintering of the two major political parties, black protests of slavery and jails, and public discourse infused with insult and invective.

Winner: Jeffrey C. Stewart’s THE NEW NEGRO: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press)

Judges’ citation: In THE NEW NEGRO, Jeffrey Stewart has written the definitive biography of Alain Locke, a trailblazer of the Harlem Renaissance, and provides a vibrant intellectual history of flowering black culture in Jazz Age America. Stewart chronicles Locke’s education from his Philadelphia childhood, to becoming the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, to earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. Psychologically perceptive, Stewart keys into Locke’s deep bond with his mother and captures his yearning for art that distinguished his remarkable worldview and propelled his work. Making masterful use of Locke’s archives and correspondence, Stewart illuminates Locke’s brave commitment to live as a gay man, and how deeply Locke was influenced by his relationships. THE NEW NEGRO illustrates Locke’s belief in the beauty of art and his promotion of the literary and artistic work of African-Americans as the quintessential creations of American modernism.

Finalist: David W. Blight’s FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster)

Judges’ citation: In this stately and compelling biography, Blight captures the full arc of Frederick Douglass’s life, from runaway slave to America’s great abolitionist and orator through the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Making use of newly discovered sources, Blight highlights charismatic Douglass through his lifetime of reinvention, as he navigated complex family relationships, fought for civil rights, and became a powerful, prophetic orator and magnetic political campaigner. “Douglass was the prose poet of America’s and perhaps of a universal body politic,” writes Blight in FREDERICK DOUGLASS. “He searched for the human soul, envisioned through slavery and freedom in all their meanings.”

2019 Mark Lynton History Prize Judges: Elizabeth Taylor (chair), Annette Gordon-Reed, and David Greenberg.




About the Lukas Prizes

Established in 1998, the Lukas Prize Project honors the best in American nonfiction writing. Co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and sponsored by the family of the late Mark Lynton, a historian and senior executive at the firm Hunter Douglas in the Netherlands, the Lukas Prize Project presents three awards annually.

About Columbia Journalism School

For more than a century, the school has been preparing journalists in programs that stress academic rigor, ethics, journalistic inquiry, and professional practice. Founded with a gift from Joseph Pulitzer, the school opened its doors in 1912 and offers Master of Science, Master of Arts, Master of Science in Data Journalism degrees as well as a joint Master of Science degree in Computer Science and Journalism, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Communications. It houses the Columbia Journalism Review, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. The school also administers many of the leading journalism awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, the John Chancellor Award, the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, the Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award, and the Mike Berger Award.

About the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,600 journalists from 97 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a quarterly print and online magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism; Nieman Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.


Contact Information

Caroline Wernecke, Assistant Director, Professional Prizes
Columbia Journalism School 
[email protected] | 212-854-6468

Follow #LukasPrizes
Follow Columbia Journalism School: @columbiajourn
Follow the Nieman Foundation: @niemanfdn