HRG students

National History Day® students explore the Harlem Renaissance with the CBMR!

Interviews with Dr. Samuel A. Floyd Jr. and Melanie Zeck, discussions, how to do archival research

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About National History Day® (NHD)

National History Day®(NHD) is a non-profit education organization based in College Park, Maryland. NHD offers year-long academic programs that engage over half a million middle- and high-school students around the world annually in conducting original research on historical topics of interest. Since 1974, NHD has continuously improved history education by providing professional development opportunities and curriculum materials for educators. The largest NHD program is the National History Day Contest that encourages more than half a million students around the world to conduct historical research on a topic of their choice. Students enter these projects at the local and affiliate levels, with top students advancing to the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park.”

The “Harlem Renaissance Group”

In January 2016, four New Jersey eighth graders were introduced to Samuel A. Floyd Jr.’s Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance, and they contacted the CBMR in search of his contact information. The students, Defne, Jasmin, Alex, and Mary, chose to study the Harlem Renaissance as part of National History Day’s 2015–2016 theme “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange.” Under the guidance of their teacher, Ms. Marrella, the “Harlem Renaissance Group” spent over 1,000 hours researching the artistic productivity associated with this particular flowering of the Negro Renaissance. While much of their time was spent reading, Ms. Marrella encouraged Defne, Jasmin, Alex, and Mary to conduct informational interviews with experts on the topic.

Harlem Renaissance Group (NHD) with their beloved teacher! Jasmin, Defne, Ms. M., Mary, Alex

After reading the students’ project overview, Floyd agreed that they would certainly benefit from a telephone interview; but he thought that they might learn their subject matter more thoroughly by taking the time to engage in a thoughtful, written dialogue. Consequently, I asked the students to send us some questions, and we were pleased to receive twenty-one! One by one, Floyd and I responded. But then, Floyd—always the teacher—asked me to provide the students with additional resources that would facilitate their learning *and* discuss their findings with them over the phone. Each week, I recounted with Floyd my conversation with the “Harlem Renaissance Group,” and he would subsequently offer new ideas for them to consider.

For the next two months, Floyd and I worked diligently with the students: sometimes we led them down the proverbial “rabbit hole” so typical of research endeavors. At other times, we simply provided clarification or demonstrated how to use archival, online, printed, and sonic resources that are essential to black music research. Our frequent interactions were thought provoking (and fun) for all involved; we only wish they had been able to meet us in person at the CBMR!

Toward the end of our collaboration, Floyd and I switched roles with Defne, Jasmin, Alex, and Mary and asked them for their expertise. We posed two questions:
• What should American eighth graders learn about the Harlem Renaissance?
• What did you learn about music and cultural expression during the Harlem Renaissance?

Here is an excerpt from the group’s response:

American eighth graders all should learn about the Harlem Renaissance.

In school, only one month is dedicated to the study of African Americans, but they are a part of our nation’s whole history. Why are we shutting them out? Why not a year of African-American history? People need to understand that if we want to stop racism, we have to learn and be educated.

By studying the Harlem Renaissance, we learned about powerful leaders, writers, and artists, such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. The participants in the Harlem Renaissance had a goal to get their message out and to be proud of that message. These participants are known today, but students do not know much about what happened to them during the Harlem Renaissance and about the origins of their messages. For example, Duke Ellington’s pieces are used in jazz and jazz competitions. If we use his concepts and ideas, then why shouldn’t we learn about where they came from?

Today, African Americans are fighting for equality through the Black Lives Matter movement, which takes the ideas of [W.E.B.] Du Bois and [Martin Luther] King. We believe that in order to understand our nation’s current situation, we must investigate history.

In conclusion, our group started to explore the Harlem Renaissance because we wanted to learn about African-American history. All four of us can say that our participation in National History Day changed our lives. We learned that bravery and integrity came with consequence. Our world is changing, why shouldn’t we learn about the change?


After the National History Day competition was over, Defne, Jasmin, Alex, and Mary finally had a chance to reflect on their own academic development and the relevance of scholarly inquiry to their lives. Here is an excerpt:

Jasmin: “Balancing school work and also spending hours on finding the perfect sources for your project is difficult.”

Defne: “We learned how we can use research methods in high school and beyond. By reading primary sources and analyzing them, we developed a vivid vocabulary because we had to write about each source we read.”

Mary: “Yes, 1,000 hours sounds like a lot and fulfilling this requirement was stressful, but being with people that are now like family and learning so many new things made those 1,000 hours enjoyable. I cannot thank my amazing teacher Ms. Marrella enough for helping me find a new passion.”

Defne: “Don’t think National History Day is all about work. We have our fun moments. For example, we have times when our group mate Alex starts singing music by Louis Armstrong.”

Alex: (mentions nothing about his singing) “After I joined my National History Day group, I started reading and looking up articles on the Harlem Renaissance, and I started to like the topic even more. But there was more to it than looking up articles and reading them, as I got to see people from a different point of view.”

Mary: “This truly was an amazing experience to learn about the Harlem Renaissance, as it taught me to appreciate the art that African Americans made during this time. This project opened up my eyes to see such beauty that I had not noticed before.”

Defne (speaking on behalf of the whole group):

“National History Day cannot be described in just one word. It is a great honor to represent our school with our project. Ms. Marrella started National History Day at our school ten years ago. During this time, she helped students develop a love for history, and she brought job to all of the past National History Day participants.

Our project is a documentary that investigates the Harlem Renaissance. We began around the beginning of November (2015). At first our group was just Mary and Defne. But soon after, Jasmin and Alex came in our group. The research journey was long and hard. As days passed to weeks, our research became deeper and deeper. We lost track of time, some of us pulled all-nighters to read the material we had to read over the course of the first month. Every chance we got, we would read and read. But that wasn’t all.

We had a great delight talking with many specialists on this topic—including Ms. Melanie Zeck and Dr. Samuel A. Floyd Jr. [at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago]. They incorporated us into conversations and helped us learn more about the Harlem Renaissance.

By investigating the Harlem Renaissance, we had the chance to explore African-American history deeply for the first time and learn about encounters that affected Harlem, such as discrimination. We don’t get taught that in school, so this experience definitely was an awakening.”

—Melanie Zeck, Research Fellow

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