The Edgewood Middle School team of (L to R) Wyatt Stapleton, Robinson Hoffert, Caleb Deuel and Finn Bailey placed second at National History Day nationals Saturday for their group documentary. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
The Edgewood Middle School team of (L to R) Wyatt Stapleton, Robinson Hoffert, Caleb Deuel and Finn Bailey placed second at National History Day nationals Saturday for their group documentary. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
A group of Edgewood Middle School eighth-graders and a Warsaw Community High School junior learned Saturday they placed in the top three in their respective categories at the National History Day national competition.

For their junior group documentary on music during the Civil Rights Movement, Edgewood students Finn Bailey, Caleb Deuel, Robinson Hoffert and Wyatt Stapleton took second place. Their documentary is titled “Singing for Change – The Power of Music in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Abigail Rahn, a Warsaw Community High School junior, placed third at nationals for her individual senior paper. Her piece is titled “Shackling Sermons: How the Pseudo-Christian Communication of Pro-Slavery Preachers Fueled the South’s Defense of Slavery.”

Singing For Change

In an interview Monday morning at the Warsaw Community Schools Central Administration Office, Finn said their documentary “really focused on the music of the Civil Rights Movement and how it was a vital part of it.”

Stapleton said they focused on the music during the Civil Rights Movement “because it was something different. No one really talked about that, how it impacted the Civil Rights Movement, so we wanted to do something new.”

Caleb said, “Also, each year, there is a topic for NHD and this year is about communication and we thought songs are really a powerful way of communicating.”

Finn said the songs they focused on were “We Shall Overcome”; “Follow the Drinking Gourd”; and “Wade in the Water.” He said it really wasn’t that hard to narrow down the list of songs because the songs they focused on were “so big” and influential.

The video documentary is about 9 minutes, 54 seconds long. It can be found on YouTube under Warsaw Boyz at https://youtu.be/ONTR2ypjFGU.

In putting the video together, Robinson said, “We kind of had a timeline so we would start with different sections within the timeline, and then we would go to one section and then go back, depending on what we were talking about.”

Finn said the video starts with a woman, who was part of the Civil Rights Movement, singing, and then it goes back in time to the Underground Railroad. Then it goes forward to the Civil Rights Movement, before moving forward to the present day with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stapleton said they started working on the project at the beginning of their eighth-grade year, in fall 2020. They worked on it during and after school.

This year, because of the pandemic restrictions, there were limitations on what they could do for their project. No interviews were allowed.

“Interviews are the best part, by far,” Robinson said. “We improvised. We basically looked up interviews on YouTube, took those and used them.”

After regionals, some changes were made to the video for state competition. At state, they won first place to advance to nationals. The contest this year was virtual instead of in-person because of the pandemic.

“It was just a lot more laid back, a lot less pressure I think,” Finn said.

Mandy Bailey, Finn’s mom, said there was only a week between state and submitting their projects to nationals so there wasn’t much time to make additional changes. “That’s only because it was virtual. Otherwise, they would have had over a month,” she said.

Finn said when they found out online they earned second place, they were the second-to-last group who got announced Saturday.

From the project, Robinson said he learned “how powerful music is. In the John Lewis interview (we used), he said that, ‘The Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings if there wasn’t any music.’”

Caleb said the NHD project “made me focus more on the lyrics of the songs that we used and the meanings of them.”

Finn said he and Robinson were at Dick Rooker’s book celebration Saturday watching the awards on their phone in a corner when they found out they placed second nationally.

“It was pretty fun,” he said.

Robinson said there were 10 finalists and their name was on the list. They were cool with being in the top 10 in the nation. They saw their names in second place and they were like, “Oh!,” he recalled.

Dr. Rachael Hoffert, Robinson’s mom, said the boys will get a special medal.

Another honor for the boys was that their video was shown at the African American History Museum.

“Only 33 groups got to go in. We were one of those 33,” Caleb said.

Erica Deuel, Caleb’s mom, said the boys learned to edit video because of the contest.

“Last year’s video, none of these boys had really edited on a computer. ... So they kind of learned last year. And this year they didn’t have that struggle as much because they knew how to edit and they just jumped in knowing those skills,” she said.

Caleb said, “My dad is a videographer. He’s around cameras a lot, so me growing up, I’ve always been around cameras so I learned from him.”

“Caleb really took the lead and shared it with his friends,” Rachael said.

Why does their project matter?

“It shows everybody has value,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t matter what color of skin you are, everybody has value. Everybody can contribute, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what color you are, what background you are. Everybody has value.”

Shackling Sermons

When Rahn learned her paper took third place at nationals, she was really excited and surprised.

“It felt surreal,” she said. “It was amazing to compete this year with all the COVID restrictions. It felt great.”

In describing her paper, she said it’s on how pastors in the South, before and during the Civil War, twisted the Bible to convince their congregations that slavery was good and God was on their side.

The idea for the paper came from her father, who is a pastor and majored in history in college, and past papers she had done for National History Day. This was the third year she’s competed in NHD.

“I had done topics that were more religious before and I wanted to go that route again,” Rahn said. Her father suggested the paper on pro-slavery preachers because most of the time when people talk about slavery and the Civil War, they just talk about the abolitionists and not the pro-slavery preachers.

“I wanted to look into this and see how southern pastors responded to slavery,” Rahn said.

She didn’t find any books for it and there were not many secondary sources for it. She read a lot of sermons by pro-slavery pastors, about 20 to 30 of them, over a six- to seven-month period of time. She read some secondary analysis from modern pastors, too.

Her final paper was about 10 pages and under 2,500 words.

“(My dad) helped me deal with what they’re saying because it was very depressing. Reading these sermons was very hard to grasp why the pastors were wrong. ... Dad helped me see where the pastors twisted words, were being cruel and not following God’s words,” she said.

The curse of Ham, also known as the curse of Canaan, from the Book of Genesis, was commonly misused by the pastors.

“These pastors would twist this story to say descendants of Ham were marked (colored black) to distinguish them as slaves forever,” she said. “The whole thing is ridiculous. It had nothing to do with race or slavery, but they frequently use that passage to push their idea.”

Rahn said doing the paper helped her with her writing and communication skills. It showed her the power of communication in the way that the pastors communicated to their congregations to influence them.

“It helped me grow a lot, it helped me to grow in my faith and understanding of slavery from a theological standpoint,” she said.

Why does her project matter?

“I think all of history matters, but approaching difficult or controversial topics is also important,” she said.

As Christians, she said it’s important to understand the whole truth of the Civil War and who was responsible for the hate toward African-Americans.

“It’s important to understand why and how it happened and why people were led astray,” she said. “... Influential religious leaders stirred their hearts and got them ready for war. People thought God was on their side.”