Abigail Crowe loves history. The home-schooled 11-year-old from Baton Rouge enjoys learning interesting facts about Louisiana’s past and hopes to become a historian when she grows up.
So she jumped at the chance to participate in the regional National History Day contest held at the West Baton Rouge Museum. She and about 200 other middle and high school students from 12 parishes converged on the museum Saturday with exhibits and costumes, hoping for a chance to attend a national competition this summer.
Abigail said she wanted her project have a local theme, so she chose school segregation and focused on West Baton Rouge Parish, where battles over integrating schools resulted in the closure of the all-black Cohn High School in 1969. Other students delved into national and international topics, including malaria, women’s suffrage and the technological evolution of computer and telephones.
Students who placed first, second, third and fourth in their categories on Saturday will advance to a state competition next month at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. State winners from around the country will then go to Washington, D.C., in June to compete for cash prizes.
Contestants could do their projects on any topic as long as they tie it to this year’s National History Day theme, “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History.” They had several options for presenting, including a traditional research paper and poster board as well as a website, a documentary or a performance.
“It relates to so many learning styles because students … can present what they’ve learned and their argument in the form of a research paper, or they can create a documentary or they can create a Web page,” said Jeannie Luckett, education curator at the West Baton Rouge Museum.
Students were encouraged to use primary sources in their research, such as conducting interviews or visiting archives to look at diaries, newspaper clippings, letters and photos. They had to defend their choice of topics and sources and answer questions on Saturday in one-on-one interviews with judges.
“It truly teaches them how to research,” Luckett said. “It broadens their horizons. It makes them more ready for college. When you get to college, you’re not going to use Wikipedia for a source.”
For Abigail, the contest was an opportunity to learn more about the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education cases, and what kind of ramifications they had locally.
In West Baton Rouge Parish, the School Board repeatedly refused to integrate its schools in the 1960s but eventually did so after a flurry of legal activity in 1969, Abigail said. With an all-black school no longer needed, Cohn High was shut down in 1969, and its buildings were demolished in 2014.
“They wanted integration, but they lost what they loved,” Abigail said. “They loved Cohn.”
Other students based their projects on stories from hundreds of years ago, seeking to dispel myths about historic figures and phenomena.
Sarah Guedry, 15, a Dutchtown High School student who gave a presentation about the origins of voodoo in Louisiana, said she had to sort through several misconceptions and make sure she had credible sources.
“It’s almost a taboo,” she said, so many people do not know that voodoo was the result of African slaves combining their religions with their masters’ Catholicism.
Bryce Gulotta dressed up as a pirate and gave a first-person account on the life of Blackbeard, the infamous pirate who was feared throughout the Thirteen Colonies and West Indies but in fact never killed anyone.
“Too many of your books and movies glamorize my life,” Bryce, a 15-year-old student at the Mathematics, Science and Arts Academy West in Plaquemine, said during his presentation. At one point, he even called judges Adrienne Wood and Stuart Tully “landlubbers” — which they loved.
Sisters Catie Booksh, 11, and Ainsley Booksh, 12, entered the contest with a documentary about a topic close to their heart: the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and its affiliate clinic in Baton Rouge, where their 4-year-old cousin, Liam Thistlethwaite, was recently treated for cancer.
The sisters, who live in Plaquemine and attend MSA West’s Starship program, told about the hospital’s founding in 1962 and the progress its researchers have made in identifying better cancer treatments in their video. They also included interviews with Liam’s doctors at the local clinic, who talked about acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the most common cancers in children, and St. Jude’s role in improving survival rates.
“They’re changing the history for the future,” Ainsley said.