National History Day in Massachusetts Enables Students to Engage in Black History Topics

by Elyssa Tardif, MHS Director of Education, and Kate Melchior, MHS Assistant Director of Education

Mayor Marty Walsh, when asked whether he would consider requiring Boston schools to teach Black history (“Ask the Mayor,” Boston Public Radio, 6/26/2020), made it clear that while educators make curriculum decisions, he believes that Massachusetts students need a “full understanding” of American history, which must include the “contributions [of] the Black community” and the “biases [they] faced.”  Unfortunately, Mayor Walsh conceded, there is only so much time in the day for teachers to spend on history and social studies.

But there is good news:  we do not have to wait for an overhaul of the state’s curriculum to provide students with abundant opportunities to learn Black history. We have National History Day in Massachusetts (NHD), a vetted, proven program that not only prepares students for college, career, and active citizenship but also enables them to engage in Black history topics that may not otherwise appear in the curriculum. In 2020, through the NHD program, students across the Commonwealth researched and presented projects on Black Americans who changed history, such as Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisolm, Henrietta Lacks, and the female mathematicians at NASA featured in the film Hidden Figures.  Schoolchildren across the state also used the NHD contest to explore the historical significance of the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts, the 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, the Boston busing controversy, and the 1921 destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” among others.  

The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is the state sponsor for NHD in Massachusetts, the state affiliate of National History Day, a yearlong interdisciplinary program focused on historical research, interpretation, and creative expression for students in grades 6 through 12. Students conduct primary- and secondary-source research on historical topics of their choosing and present their work through a documentary film, website, performance, paper, or exhibit. NHD enables teachers to address literacy standards, the 2018 History and Social Science framework, and the 2018 civics requirement in one student-led, inquiry-based project.

This year, nearly 700 students from Massachusetts showcased their projects in the first-ever virtual state competition with 61 students advancing to the national contest in June. Several Bay State students were medalists, and one student from Bedford High School, Shana Wolckenhaar, received a special distinction: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. chose her documentary film, entitled Breaking the Barrier of Truth around King Leopold II’s Congo Free State through the Use of Mass Media, to feature online to a national audience.

At present, 6,000 students participate in NHD across Massachusetts from Lynn to Pittsfield. Yet that number represents only 1.2% of eligible students in the state. The MHS is committed to growing NHD across the Commonwealth so that all students—not just those from highly resourced districts—have access to this important program.

However, NHD in Massachusetts faces challenges due to the lack of funding. The program currently receives no funding from the state—in contrast to other states. For example, Minnesota allocates a million dollars a year to support their NHD participants. With state funding, we can ensure that all Massachusetts students, including those from high need districts such as Lynn, Attleboro, and Brockton, have access to National History Day. Greater access to this program will hone important 21st-century skills, such as media literacy and critical thinking, of Massachusetts students. For educators strapped for time in the classroom, NHD makes their job easier: they can deepen student engagement with research and writing through NHD’s proven teaching strategies and robust resources, while checking off the boxes for literacy and Social Studies standards, as well as the new civics requirement. And NHD creates a path to those Black history topics that would otherwise receive short shrift in the classroom. NHD provides young people with the opportunity to develop skills that can be deployed across a lifetime of learning—from academic, personal, and professional pursuits to the education of a new generation.