Greendale Middle School student Rachel Kohl is one of two Wisconsin students heading to Maryland in June for the finals of the 2018-2019 National History Day contest. There she will compete against one hundred other middle school students from across the country. Rachel’s project is in the individual exhibit category. Guided by an annual theme, students participating in National History Day are encouraged to choose a topic that matches their personal interests. The 2018-2019 theme is Triumph & Tragedy in History. Students enter their projects in local level contests, with top entries advancing to regional and state/affiliate contests. Along the way, students receive honors, awards, and scholarships. The top two entries from every category are then invited to the National Contest held June 2019 at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Rachel’s project focused on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City on March 11, 1911. This was the deadliest industrial fire in American history. It claimed the lives of 145 people, mostly young immigrant women who spoke no English. They worked in cramped, crowded sweatshop conditions and the deaths were largely preventable. Working on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors in the Asch Building in Manhattan, only one of the four elevators was in working condition and the fire escape was not only very difficult to access, it collapsed under the weight of fleeing workers. There were also two stairways down to the street but one was locked (to prevent workers from stealing materials) and the other had a door that opened inward. As a result, 49 women died in the building, 36 in the elevator shaft, and 58 jumped to their death to try to escape this horrible tragedy.
For the triumph of this historical event, Rachel focused on changes in laws that both protected workers and kept them safe in the workplace. To keep workers safe, laws were implemented ensuring that doors of factories opened outward, stairways were accessible, fire escapes sturdy and lead to the ground and that sprinkler systems were required in buildings. At the end of her project, Rachel also identifies the struggle women have had in being treated fairly in the workplace, a struggle and tragedy that still exists today.
More than a half a million middle and high school students from across the country take part in National History Day each year. This project-based contest provides students an opportunity to develop critical thinking and source analysis skills while gaining historical perspective. Participants spend months researching a topic of their choice before presenting their work in one of five categories: documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, and website.