Joel Elias Spingarn (May 17, 1875 – July 26, 1939), served as Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University from 1899 to 1911. He served as a major during World War I and during the war co-founded the publishing firm of Harcourt Brace and Company. He served as chairman of the NAACP from 1913-1919, then Treasurer, 1919-1930. In 1914 he established the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually in the spring by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an African American. Spingarn’s country estate later became the Troutbeck Inn and Conference Center in Amenia, New York. He died after a long illness on July 26, 1939. Through a trust fund Spingarn’s will included a bequest to fund the Spingarn Medal in perpetuity.
The purpose of the solid gold Spingarn Medal remains twofold: first to present to the American public the existence of distinguished persons of merit and achievement among Americans of African descent, and secondly, to serve as a reward for such achievement, and as a stimulus to youth of color.
The medal is for the highest public achievement in the preceding year. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1957.The athlete Jack R. Robinson had won the medal the previous year. The award committee currently consists of nine members.
The most recent winners of the Spingarn Medal from the NCAACP are:
2012: Harry Belafonte, Singer, song writer, actor and social activist.
2013: Jessye Norman, Opera singer, Grammy Award winner.
2014: Quincy Jones, Composer, Producer, Grammy Award winner.
2015: Sidney Poitier, Actor and Social activist, Oscar Winner.
The current owner of the Troutbeck property, Jim Flaherty, is proud of Troutbeck’s notable history as a think-tank force for social change. Many of Spingarn’s papers are still extant at the Troutbeck complex.