History Day: A Pipeline Into History and the Liberal Arts

Saint Mary's hosted its first-ever History Day on March 10.

A boy gazes at a poster during Public History Day at Saint Mary's College.It’s the kind of scene that makes history teachers take notice. Four fourth grade boys, discussing with animated enthusiasm—the Salem Witch Trials. Saint Mary’s College hosted its first-ever History Day, March 10, in conjunction with the Contra Costa School District. A prelude to the state and national competition, 165 students in grades 4-12 presented projects on everything from women’s suffrage to the Cuban missile crisis.

Competitions like this are an effective way to introduce historical research to children, said event coordinator and SMC associate professor of history, Aeleah Soine “We are training students to practice history in communities, in museums, in multimedia. It’s more of an interactive and engaged form of historical practice.”

Richmond eighth-graders Jarpre Chhina and Jaquelin Trujillo (Making Waves Academy) were recognized for their poster-board and performance on Ota Benga – the Congolese pygmy who was caged at the Bronx Zoo as part of a 1906 exhibit on Social Darwinism. “Right now in our society, racism is very prevalent,” said Trujillo. “This, one of the biggest things that has happened, was really hidden. We wanted to make it known.”

History professor Myrna Santiago said the judges found the Ota Benga entry compelling. “The students did a very sophisticated analysis of the particular way in which this person was presented and exhibited, and in the context of the ideologies that were in vogue in the United States at the time.”

Saint Mary’s offered cash prizes in four new categories of competition; women and gender history, ethnic history, environmental history and global history. Soine saw the value of SMC’s participation.

“There’s pretty good national research about creating a pipeline into history and the liberal arts at a younger age,” she said, “and this is seen as a very effective way of introducing students to historical research when they’re 10 or 12…rather than trying to introduce it at college level.”