Written by Tracy Hayes
Three projects featuring Julius Rosenwald and the legacy of Rosenwald Schools placed in the finals for their state and traveled to College Park, Maryland for the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland June 14-18. This year’s contest topic was The Individual in History and their Legacy. The two exhibits and one documentary on Rosenwald won local, regional, and state contests to make their way to the national contest where nearly 2,200 middle and high school students from the 50 states, Washington DC, Guam, Samoa, and US Department of Defense Schools in Europe gathered to compete for honors, prizes, and scholarships in each of five categories. Two of the three Rosenwald entries took home top honors as best-in-state for South Carolina.
National History Day grew out of a program begun with 129 students presenting history projects at Case Western Reserve in Ohio in 1974. Today, more than 600,000 students participate nationwide. Only two projects from each category are selected to represent their state at nationals.
Categories include papers, websites, documentaries, exhibits, and performances – the latter three categories can be group projects or individual, with Junior (middle school) and Senior (high school) divisions. Research requirements rival college level papers. Students then present projects to a panel of judges. Judging is based on the breadth of research, sources used, knowledge of topic, the adherence to the rules of the contest, the presentation, and student interviews. Most students spend the better part of the school year working on their presentations.
I was able to catch up with the girls whose Senior exhibit on Julius Rosenwald made it to nationals and won an award for best in South Carolina. Laura Brabham, and Rachel and Rebecca Marsh are freshmen from Cheraw High School in Cheraw, SC. When asked how they chose their subject, they replied “We started with the schools in mind, then found out about Julius Rosenwald.” They found the story compelling, that “this white, Jewish man donated the money for the schools when not many people were helping African Americans. Rosenwald understood that education was important, that you can’t move forward without that education.”
Rosenwald donated over $4.2 million in seed grants to build schools for African American children in the early 20th century, and more than $4.7 million was raised by African Americans – in addition to donations of land and sweat equity to build community schools.
My daughter, Alex Hayes, competed this year representing Moultrie Middle School in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Her individual documentary, Julius Rosenwald and the Legacy of Rosenwald Schools, also brought home a best-in-state award for South Carolina. Why choose a documentary? “I like photography. The photographs and the personal interviews with former students of Rosenwald Schools were two of the most important sources for my documentary,” she told judges. “Also one of my former teachers recommended that category over others because it is ‘dynamic’ and he offered to help me learn the technology required.” The highlight of this trip? “Getting through the presentation, and a chance sighting of Michelle Obama in her garden at the White House!”
National History Day—under the radar, but well worth the effort. I know first hand that the thousands students who participated at the all levels gained experience that will benefit them in years to come. And I know all participants have a huge advantage over others that did not meet the challenge of National History Day. And Julius Rosenwald? Thanks to the three projects from South Carolina, Julius Rosenwald and his legacy of education for African Americans is more widely known.
Next year’s topic: Innovation in History. I see opportunity for budding preservationists to take home some prizes!
Tracy Hayes is the Rosenwald Initiative program assistant at the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.