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A History Day That Veers Across Centuries

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At the University of Maryland this week, some visitors from the pages of history: Louisa May Alcott walking the halls; Navajo code talkers huddled in a corner; and then there's 1930s union organizer and folk singer Molly Jackson.

EMMA BENNETT: (As Molly Jackson) (Singing) I am a union woman just as brave as I can be. I do not like the bosses, and the bosses don't like me.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Actually, that's 11th-grader Emma Bennett from Huntington, Pennsylvania. She is one of 2,200 students who have gathered in College Park, Maryland, for this year's National History Day competition.

BLOCK: The national contest is designed to improve the teaching and learning of history in middle schools and high schools throughout the country. Most students have worked all year on their projects, which can take the form of an exhibit, a research paper, a documentary or, as in Emma's case, a dramatic performance.

BENNETT: (As Molly Jackson) Yeah, that's me, Aunt Molly Jackson, midwife by trade, singer by heart and a full-blooded union woman. Been one all my life and still am by all accounts, even though I'm so far away from my home and been so far away for--Gosh, has it been three years since I left Harlan, Kentucky, in 1932? Harlan, Kentucky, sure is awful far from New York City. But what can you do? I'm a singer, and I've got to spread the word of the labor unions through my song. And if I've got to be in New York City to do it, so be it.

ZOE ACKERMAN: (As Hattie Mabel Karken) Welcome, brethren and sisters. My name is Hattie Mabel Karken(ph). I teach for the Freedmen's Bureau in a rough wooden schoolhouse erected as a hospital during the war in Charlottesville, Virginia.

SIEGEL: That's Zoe Ackerman, dressed in a tweed coat, a white apron and a bonnet. She's 12 and really does live in Charlottesville. She created the fictional character Hattie Mabel Karken after reading the unpublished diaries of Felaina Karken(ph), a real Quaker teacher of freed slaves. The diaries begin at the end of the Civil War.

ACKERMAN: I read Felaina Karken's diary, and she used really interesting phrases and she was just a really spunky person. So I decided to model my character after her and use some of her phrases from her diary and then make the rest up off of that.

(As Hattie Mabel Karken) I've been called a Quaker by birth, but a soldier by nature. My position as a teacher of the freedmen in Charlottesville calls for some soldierly qualities. The Klu Klux Klan once left a picture of a coffin upon my doorstep with the `KKK' mark, perhaps with the view of frightening me, not considering that had I been timid and easily frightened, I would not have come to Charlottesville in the first place.

MacKENZIE VAN ENGELENHOVEN: (As Newsboy) We are the striker newsboys of New York City, and we are here to raise awareness that these papers are being unfairly sold to us for more money than they're worth.

BLOCK: Eighth-grader MacKenzie Van Engelenhoven of Salt Lake City, Utah. Her topic is the newsboy strike of 1899, which she first heard about while watching the Disney movie "Newsies."

VAN ENGELENHOVEN: During the Spanish-American War, the publishers of the New York World and the New York Journal, which were Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, decided that since the newspapers were selling so much, they wanted to raise the price to make more money. They raised it from 50 cents per hundred papers to 60 cents per hundred papers. And they promised the newsboys that when the Spanish-American War was over, they'd lower the price again when the papers stopped selling so much. But they didn't, and so the newsboys decided to go on strike.

(As Newsboy) Tonight, there's going to be a mass meeting of all the newsboys, no matter who you sell for or where you're from. There's people coming from everywhere, from Brooklyn and Yonkers and Queens and the Bronx. We don't know if we's going to let Davey and Kid Blink in, even though they're the leaders of the strike. They was accused of taking a bribe from the publishers to call off the strike. I thought Davey's boots was looking awful shiny lately.

SIEGEL: That's MacKenzie Van Engelenhoven at National History Day. We also heard from Zoe Ackerman and Emma Bennett. The winners in the 2005 competition will be announced at the University of Maryland on Thursday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.