Two Broadneck High School seniors were recognized with a special award at the virtual 2021 Maryland History Day awards ceremony held on May 2. Gabriella Mills and Natalie Smith won the Excellence in Maryland History, Senior Division honor for their website “A Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad.”
Maryland History Day is a program of Maryland Humanities. This year’s contest theme was “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.” Because the topic of communication is so vast, Smith and Mills picked a topic that people wouldn’t normally associate with communication.
“We found all these really cool ways of indirect and nonverbal communication on the Underground Railroad and so we really thought it'd be cool to highlight that because it kind of spins the topic in a new way,” Smith said.
The topic is also somewhat local, as some routes went through Maryland, and conductors, including Harriet Tubman, were from Maryland. Some accounts from slaves mentioned places like Frederick County and Baltimore.
Mills even found a story about a family of slaves that had the same last name as her.
“That's kind of scary almost because it’s so personal to me, but not at the same time,” Mills said.
Smith and Mills used a mixture of personal stories and secondary sources from books and websites. Finding accounts from former slaves and the people who helped them escape proved to be difficult because slaves were rarely taught to read and write.
“It did include a quite a bit of research to find those primary sources,” Smith said.
Ensuring that the information that they were using was accurate was also difficult.
“We obviously used the internet to look at stuff, but we also had to be careful about that, making sure that the sources are testable and they aren't fabricated in any way,” Smith said.
For Mills, it was difficult emotionally to see photos and hear stories about what slavery was like from former slaves.
“I would have to listen to these audios and then try to remove myself emotionally from it to actually create the website about it,” Mills said.
Smith and Mills decided to make the project as a website because of how much they’ve needed to learn how to use online resources due to the pandemic.
“We know how to use the virtual resources given to us, and how to upload it because for the past year we've had to become pretty familiar with that just to do school in general,” Smith said.
There were some benefits to having the project as a website as opposed to one of the other formats available for the project. Smith and Mills liked that it was self-directed and afforded some creative liberties for using different ways of conveying information beyond a text format.
“You don't have to pay attention to a long presentation or read an entire paper, so it makes it more digestible for audiences, and we like to add the cool graphics and virtual elements to it,” Smith said.
An important part of the project was showing how the historical communication that was used in the Underground Railroad continues to be visible in Black culture. Things like certain styles of hair braids, codes and songs were used to communicate advice on which routes to take. Learning the roots of these practices may help others understand why they are important in Black culture.
“A lot of you can almost see the importance in which it plays in African American culture,” Mills said. “And I think that's important that a lot of people see that to avoid being disrespectful.”
Both Mills and Smith saw the Maryland History Day award event online and were excited to see that their project had won an award.
“It was so exciting to see that, especially because this topic is something we were both really interested about, and it's not spoken about as much as it should be, especially in the mindset of, ‘What has this contributed to these overall communities of art or song?’” Mills said.
Smith appreciates the sponsors of the Maryland History Day competition and the special awards.
“I think it’s great what they’re doing,” Smith said. “It’s keeping students interested in doing research projects and in history.”