Matthew Duncan found ideas flowing as soon as he learned this year’s New Jersey National History Day competition theme: Taking a Stand in History.
National History Day is a competition that allows middle and high school students from around the nation to work on in-depth research on any topic of their interest, based on the yearly theme. The students first present at a regional level, and a select few advance to the state level. The winners there then go to the national level.
When Duncan, then a Lawrence Middle School student, heard the topic, his focus immediately went to the Civil Rights movement. Duncan produced a documentary called “Black Hair: Taking a Stand for Heritage and Revolution,” which received the first-ever Best African-American Project award from the New Jersey Historical Society at the state competition in May.
Additionally, a representative of the state Department of Education arranged for Duncan to present his project at the Amistad Commission Summer Institute Conferences for Teachers at Kean University and Rowan University this month.
A number of other LMS students won awards. One group—Sarah DeFalco, Jordan Pelovitz and Madeline Weeks—placed within the top 20 of group performances in the nation for their project on the Night Witches, the first all-female bomber squad in the world. Eric Maest and Suraj Kura earned an award from the New Jersey Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution for their website about the Culper Spy Ring.
Arjun Aggarwal and John Weaver received awards for their documentary on George Washington’s 10-day stand during the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Annie Yao and Kaia Dyckman presented their project about Belva Lockwood’s 1884 presidential campaign at the Museum of American History in Washington.
‘It inspired me to think about hair as not cultural but more politicized, as it was an influential aspect in the Civil Rights movement.’
Duncan, who will attend Lawrence High School in the fall, first found his passion for history in sixth grade, when a social studies course introduced “ancient history and a bit of military history, with figures like Napoleon and Julius Caesar. That’s when I started learning history on my own time.”
He says he’s deeply interested in Napoleonic history, early Chinese dynasties and Japanese history. His parents say his interest in history goes back even further.
“Even before he was going to school, Matthew absolutely loved dinosaurs. He was so enthralled that he even could have serious conversations with real paleontologists,” said mother Maria Duncan, a stay-at-home mom and former mortgage team manager.
Duncan began channeling his passion through NHD in seventh grade, when he joined Lawrence Middle School’s Enrichment Challenge Program. While all students in ECP are required to create a project based on NHD guidelines, they are not required to compete. However, the ECP teacher, Priscilla Taylor, felt Duncan stood out as a student, which made him competition-ready.
“He’s a very enthusiastic and curious student. He has a deep interest in a lot of different subjects,” Taylor said.
With Taylor’s help, he was able to focus on a specific aspect of the Civil Rights movement for this year’s project.
“Ms. Taylor was a huge help. I was originally just focusing on African-American culture, but she focused and helped me, and showed me that I needed more analysis,” Duncan said.
He was also inspired by a book titled Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Lori L. Tharps.
“I had looked it up for recreational reading because it was about my hair,” Duncan said. “And so I read it, and it inspired it to me think about hair as not cultural but more politicized, as it was an influential aspect in the Civil Rights movement. That’s what got me thinking that I could make a topic about hair.”
Duncan created a documentary, which he used to analyze the topic rather than just stating facts. His documentary focused on how people wore their hair styles during the time period and how that style affected the overall activity in the Civil Rights movement. “New radical movements that were being created at the time, like the Black Panther party, really wanted to stick together and wanted a uniform form of hair. That way, you could communicate to everyone what your political beliefs are,” he said. “Though the afro wasn’t originally African, the style caught on with African-Americans, especially the youth of the time who were engulfed in being rebels.”
Though the final presentation was professional and persuasive, Duncan faced his fair share of obstacles while preparing the project. He used Windows Movie Maker to create the documentary, and says Windows Movie Maker was difficult to adapt to. It sometimes took him hours to upload a small timeframe of video.
Duncan also faced challenges doing the research itself.
“Ms. Taylor really likes us focusing on primary sources, because not only do the judges pay attention to primary sources, but they’re very accurate and they also show deep research,” he said. “At one point, I really couldn’t find any more sources, but then I found some important archives and databases which really helped. I even got a surprising number of books for such an obscure topic.”
He said an interview with Nijah Cunningham, a professor at Princeton Unviersity, was an “incredible” resource, and the competition’s judges said it was a highlight of the project. Duncan also visited the Museum of African American History in Washington and said that was also useful.
Taylor said Duncan kept at his research no matter how difficult. In part because of this perseverance, he advanced from the regional level to the state level. Though his project did not make it to the national competition, he received the award for Best African-American Project from the NJHS at the end of the state level.
“I think it was the first award announced, and we were all (cheering) because they had told us the NJHS was offering this particular award for the first time so to have one of our students win it was just an amazing experience for all of us there,” Taylor said.
As part of the award, Duncan was given a certificate, $250, a one-year membership to the NJHS and an internship opportunity at the NJHS in high school or college.
Duncan believes he received the award due to his unique topic. “Although there were are lot of African-American related projects, a lot of them were about completely well-known topics. My project really went into an obscure cultural topic, and the society really wants to highlight historical topics that no one knows about,” he said.
Through his project, Duncan learned various lessons.
“Firstly and most importantly, I learned what an influence culture had on politics,” he said. “I thought that culture was irrelevant in politics and culture didn’t matter or shape anything. As I did my research, I found the exact opposite.”
Duncan also learned how to make a detailed and professional level project, which his father believes will be extremely valuable.
“Getting the experience to put a project of this magnitude together helped provide that structure around how he learns and presents,” Greg Duncan, a web project manager at Princeton University, said.
Maria Duncan said NHD helped sharpen his already-present passion for history.
“NHD helped him learn how to research and learn more about a topic,” she said. “It really focused him on getting good and reliable information and learning how to present it. I think his interest and willingness to share his interest was already there, but it was more about taking that and presenting it,” she said.
Throughout the past two years of involvement in NHD, Taylor has also seen a great deal of growth in Duncan.
“Everything from improved writing skill, improved research skill, increased competence level in communication whether verbally or in writing with adults, because a lot of what we do with NHD is encouraging students to contact experts, whether it be historians or authors or professors,” she said. “I think he had a terrific two years at middle school and I saw his writing, research, critical thinking skills, confidence all improve dramatically throughout, not only through NHD but through everything in ECP. I think this award was an icing on the cake, and what a way to end a middle school career.”
While Duncan has learned a great deal from his project, he believes others can learn from the topic, too.
“It’s certainly not as prevalent as during the movement, but hair is still shaping our culture and how we do everything,” he said. “I think it’s important that people know the politicized meaning of hair back then. Wearing a hairstyle doesn’t define your politics today, but a lesson that I would like people to take would be to be proud of what you stand for. I personally don’t wear the afro for any political reason. I wear its because it’s easy. But be proud.”