By Janet Beyer
Nellie Bly and Abbie Hoffman. Two people who left an imprint on the 19th and 20th centuries.. Two people who, in different ways, fostered change not only in their generation, but also in history. And two people who enabled six Bedford High School juniors to win a trip to the National History Day Competition next month at the University of Maryland.
Students, nationwide, look for people who fostered leadership and legacy. Otto Altmann and Haroon Bukhari found these qualities in Hoffman and Jaqui Hale, Nili Ezekiel, Sarah Nosal and Rachel Arnold found them in Nellie Bly. They are among a few teams throughout Massachusetts to win the opportunity to compete with students throughout the United States. There are several categories and the Bedford students chose to compete in the group website category for Bly (https://52651410.nhd.weebly.com/) and for Hoffman, Otto and Haroon made a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZgJfuDjpp0).
The students have been working on the project since September. But, Nili said, they started in their freshman year with teacher James Sunderland teaching them to think critically, find and use reliable sources. They honed those skills during this project. Mr. Sunderland had them collect more material then they would need, think critically and to learn what the world was like at the time their subjects were working, putting the project into a wider context.
One of the students said, “We wanted to find a woman who we felt we could connect with. We found a journalist and we thought Nellie fit the criteria. We could find her legacy in her articles. She was a journalist, first for a Pittsburg paper, which put her in the women’s pages, and then, in 1887, in New York City for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Pulitzer set her loose.”
Her groundbreaking exposé, the students said, was of the treatment of the insane. She feigned insanity and was committed to New York’s Blackwell Island, where she was housed in an asylum for the insane for 10 days. This was the first of her Stunt Journalism articles. This stunt resulted in the state of New York giving $1 million per year to care of the mentally disabled.
She went to a park to check police harassment. Because the article was more personal it was criticized for being one sided.
The students said she was interested in the treatment of workers, trust busting, human trafficking, such as buying a baby. She went around the world, following the example of the Jules Verne book Around the World in 80 Days.
Bly stopped doing as many stunts because people began to recognize her. But, the students said, she interested people in reforming institutions. She also showed that women can do more than write about gardens and clothes.
Abbie Hoffman was a counter revolutionary, whose name was in the papers regularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Haroon said he was little reluctant to take on Hoffman. He thought he was a little crazy and an attention getter, then found there was a method in his madness.
Otto and Haroon found that Hoffman left several legacies, one was gorilla protesting. Otto said he changed the rhetoric of protesting. He got people onto the streets and protested in creative ways, such as throwing money out windows on Wall Street. He attempted to levitate at the Pentagon with a crowd of other people in a large exorcism, to rid the Pentagon of its devils. Daniel Ellsberg, working at the Pentagon, saw this protest and was impressed. It contributed to his giving the secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
Hoffman started in the deep south, driving black people to the polls with the N.A.A.C.P. He worked with Jerry Rubin, another well-known protester, but while Rubin went mainstream, Hoffman stayed counter culture.
Otto and Haroun said they started their 10-minute video with what activism meant when Hoffman started. They talked with his lawyer and a friend. They got primary footage from The Thomas J. Dodd Archives at the University of Connecticut. This included childhood letters and condolence letters received after Hoffman died at 52 in 1989.
Otto explained that Hoffman thought the U.S. had a lot of potential and he tried to encourage the youth to live up to its potential. He was active during the Vietnam War, and that was the focus of his protests.
Otto and Haroun said they would not like to be Hoffman, but admire what he accomplished.
Sarah said that all four on her team admired Nellie’s bravery and that she stood up for people without a voice. She was never satisfied with the status quo, Nili said. And she never let anything stand in her way. Sarah added, “Any history students should try this project. It is a rewarding experience.”
And Haroun added, “Mr. Sunderland was our lighthouse as we sailed the storm of the history fair.”
Bedford High School has been competing in National History day since 2005. And Mr. Sunderland added, “Over the years we’ve had several projects place at nationals including two first places, one second place, one fourth place, one tenth place, two twelfth places and one thirteenth place And Bedford has gone to the nationals each year.”
In June the students head to Maryland. Are they excited? Yes!