Triumph and Tragedy in History
School has started, which means that it is time to start brainstorming for this year’s National History Day projects! Each year National History Day selects a theme that is intentionally broad enough so that students can select topics from anywhere and any time in history. The theme gives students a lens through which they will gain a deeper understanding of history beyond facts and dates, and pushes them to think about perspective, context, and broader impact of historical events.
The 2019 theme has been announced as “Triumph and Tragedy in History.” While this theme sounds straightforward at first, it challenges students and teachers alike to think about the true meaning of both words in a historical context. National History Day advises students to begin with the definition of both words: according to Merriam Webster, the definition of triumph is “a victory or conquest by or as if by military force, or a notable success,” while tragedy is defined a “disastrous event.” While students do not need to necessarily include both triumph and tragedy in their work, many topics will end up including both: a military triumph, for example, might be defined as a tragedy by the losing side. NHD then poses the following questions for students starting to select their topics:
“Can one person’s triumph be another’s tragedy? Can the same person or group suffer from tragedy and triumph at the same time? How does one ultimately triumph after tragedy? Can triumph lead to tragedy?”
The Massachusetts History Day affiliate recently held an Intro to Mass History Day teacher workshop for educators from BPS, Lynn, and other schools in the Boston area. To put themselves in their students’ shoes, teachers built upon NHD’s questions about the meaning of “Triumph and Tragedy” and brainstormed their own questions (see image). Some of their questions included:
- Can war ever be a triumph? Is it always a tragedy?
- How long does triumph last in history?
- Does triumph always equal tragedy for someone else?
- Do people learn from tragedy? Can that lesson be a triumph?
- Can reform be both triumph and tragedy?
- Can whether something is thought of as a triumph or tragedy change through history? Does it depend on who remembers it?
Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, 1811.
Along with many heritage organizations around the country, the MHS Center for the Teaching of History thought about how the NHD theme connects to our own collections at MHS. We set up a CTH Theme Page with ideas about topics, links to collections, and intriguing objects from our archives that might serve as a launching point for student research into triumph and tragedy. Suggested topics include early Boston smallpox inoculations, Massachusetts women in WWI, Boston marriages and LGBTQ+ history, Wampanoag and English settler interactions, and Elizabeth Freeman’s suit for freedom from slavery.
Henry A. Monroe, a young musician with the 54th Regiment.
Another example is the history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. The 54th’s tragic losses at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 are also remembered for triumphant bravery shown and for how the soldiers paved the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war. The 54th also fought a lesser-known but just as critical battle against its own government: the fight for equal pay. African American soldiers in the 54th and other Black units refused pay for 18 months until the government granted them the same pay to their white counterparts. While the achievement of equal pay is regarded another triumph for civil rights, numerous tragedies shape this story: the hardship of the pay battle on Black soldiers and their families, the immense tragedy of the US Government’s racism and oppression, and the harsh punishments and even deaths of several soldiers for “mutiny” over the conflict.
How do you think that Triumph and Tragedy can act as perspectives for examining history? What items in our collection do you think connect to the theme?
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