Within my role in the education department at MdHS, I have the pleasure of interacting with middle and high school students who have gone the extra mile for their National History Day projects. Founded in 1974, the NHD program is the social studies equivalent of a science fair, allowing young people to apply their creativity through the study of history. Within the Student Research Center, I coordinate guided sessions for those participants throughout the fall and winter, giving students the opportunity to work directly with original document collections from our library. The resulting products are being put to the test now, as nearly every county in the state has had its district level competition in February or March. The best will be on display on Saturday, April 29th for the state competition, held every year at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC).
Some ambitious students have even selected topics with significance to their local communities in Maryland. These projects ranged from well-known figures such as Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall to the more obscure like African-American polar explorer Matthew Henson, longtime Baltimore NAACP president Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, and the Baltimore Elite Giants of the segregated Negro Leagues in baseball. Students were able to utilize archived interviews, manuscripts, historical prints, published books, scholarly articles from the Maryland Historical Magazine, as well as special collections including the work of photographer Paul Henderson. Particularly for those studying the twentieth century, Henderson provides a fascinating glimpse into the civil rights movement and African- American life in Maryland.
Ed Williams and Tyler Cassidy, from Plum Point Middle School in Calvert County, provided another wonderful example of this local research focus. The two boys chose to investigate the story of Harriet Elizabeth Brown, a teacher in the segregated African-American schools of Calvert County, who sought to equalize the salaries of black and white educators. Her case, supported by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, was ultimately successful and led to a string of similar victories for teachers in counties across the state. Perhaps the most significant source in MdHS’s collections was the 1933 Annual Report from the Maryland State Board of Education. Through statistical analysis of the racially distinct school systems, the document lays bare the financial inequalities that Brown and others were combating. Local officials did not hide the fact that teachers in the segregated “colored schools” were often paid less than half the salaries of their counterparts in the white schools. By the 1930’s the burgeoning civil rights movement in Maryland included an aggressive campaign to gain equality of educational resources at the K-12 and university levels.
These students were additionally exposed to newspaper archives as well as oral history interviews from the McKeldin-Jackson Collection, which provided insight into the strategies of activists and educators in southern Maryland. All successful History Day projects must incorporate a variety of perspectives and source types in order to effectively investigate their content. Students are required to complete an annotated bibliography with at least 10 primary sources, and also must be prepared to defend their research findings to adult judges. It’s quite a challenging process for someone who’s just in middle or high school!
While some may be familiar with Maryland’s conflicted identity during the Civil War, most likely have not heard the story of John Merryman. A Confederate sympathizer, he actively combated the Union’s influence in the state by leading the destruction of railroad lines near his home in northern Baltimore County. Sam Jenkins, an 8th grade student in Baltimore City, took on the challenge of analyzing the resulting court case that also involved another controversial figure, Supreme Court justice and Maryland native Roger Brook Taney.
The complicated political landscape of Baltimore (particularly the violent reaction to Union invasion later known as the “Pratt Street Riots”) is discussed in great detail in the “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War” exhibit in the MdHS museum. The library collections are able to provide an even more in-depth look at the significance of this case, not only for our state, but the nation as a whole. In fact, Taney’s personal thoughts about the case can be found hidden in the John Eager Howard Papers, MS 469, where he repeatedly writes to friend James Mason Campbell. These letters reveal the judge’s paranoia in the wake of the court case, in which he challenges Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Many Marylanders felt that the President had acted unfairly and even illegally in arresting numerous local figures for alleged treason. Justice Taney’s full opinion on the Merryman case can also be found as a pamphlet in the MdHS library collections.
The History Day program has been rapidly expanding in many of Maryland’s public and private school systems, providing a wonderful opportunity for students to learn more about the significant people and events that have impacted their own communities. In the current age of media overload and misinformation, it is even more important for young people to learn the value of evaluating sources and using primary evidence to support their conclusions. The Maryland Historical Society enthusiastically supports students and teachers who seek to build those skills through the investigation of local history in primary source collections. Whether with research sessions, onsite exhibit tours, online curricula or virtual field trips, our education department has continued to lead the way in bringing these important resources to the public. (David Armenti)
David Armenti is the Historical Investigations Specialist, with the Society’s Education Department. Click here to learn more about volunteering and advancing the educational mission of MdHS!
If you are interested in learning more about the National History Day competitions in Maryland, you may visit the website or contact Maryland Humanities: http://www.mdhumanities.org/programs/maryland-history-day/ School, district, state and the national competition are always looking for community members and institutions who would like to support the program.