AJ Dome: OUR NEIGHBORS | Pair of 6th graders receive national recognition for Underground Railroad project

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Jul. 6—Lucy Martinie and Bailey Bush said they weren't expecting to make it to a national competition with their research project about communication methods in the Underground Railroad.

"Our teacher kept telling us hard work will pay off, and it kind of did," Martinie said.

"We weren't expecting to move on, and we were really surprised when we did," Bush said.

Bush and Martinie, both sixth graders at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, won second place in the junior group exhibit category for National History Day, a nonprofit education organization based in Maryland that offers middle- and high-school students a chance to explore historical topics in a long-form research project. More than half a million students around the world participate in National History Day competitions each year, according to the organization. It hosts regional and statewide contests with finalists heading to the nationals at the end of the spring semester.

Martinie and Bush placed first in the regional contest which included other northeast Kansas teams, then they were among the top two finishers in the statewide competition. That took them to nationals, where they placed second in their category, and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History featured their exhibit virtually. The project is on display in the lobby of the Flint Hills Discovery Center for the next few weeks.

The girls' teacher, Kelly Carmody, said this was her first year leading her sixth-graders through History Day programming, since the previous teacher who led the program at Wilson Elementary retired.

"I didn't want to see History Day die at our building, so I volunteered for it, not knowing it was going to be a huge task" Carmody said. "I had, out of 40 students, like 12 kids participate."

Carmody said the number of students participating in History Day "went beyond my wildest dreams for them."

"That (number) was huge, because this year was not very exciting for school, and the kids weren't as excited as the normally are," Carmody said.

Carmody said she's extremely proud of the work all of her students achieved this past year.

"The fact that all of my students placed at state was awesome, and to even make it to nationals is awesome," Carmody said. "But then to be the only representation of Kansas — that's beyond amazing."

Bush said the process of preparing and redoing their poster for presentation was tough.

"The first time we made it, our teacher made us redo the entire board before sending it, so we had to do it twice," Bush said. "For nationals we redid the whole thing, and it looks so much more professional after we redid it."

Martinie said a lot of time was spent learning how to format their bibliography and photos for the virtual presentation.

"We spent so much time figuring out technology, that we had to talk to multiple teachers so they could help us," Martinie said. "One of the most challenging things at the beginning was Bailey was quarantined for the first three weeks of it, so we were Zooming... we were writing at home, losing our notes everywhere, it was so stressful."

Bush and Martinie agreed that stress paid off in the end. Their completed project focuses on communication methods between slaves and those who helped them escape along the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. Martinie said, when they first learned about the Underground Railroad, they thought it was "like a subway underground" that Black people used to escape slavery.

"My dad actually did think it was underground," Martinie said. "People need to know the Underground Railroad was so helpful."

The Underground Railroad was a network of farms and homes stretching from southern states northward into "free states" such as Kansas. Bush said she learned slaves would use songs and words sewn into quilts to communicate with each other along the way.

"Another way people communicated was with lanterns... if it was safe, the light would be on, and if it wasn't safe the light would be out," Bush said. "With the quilts, if someone left a quilt out, or it had a specific pattern on it, slaves could determine what houses were safe or not that way."

Martinie said "it was phenomenal" to learn about the different methods of passing messages along the Underground Railroad.

She said she and Bush got an introduction to the Underground Railroad in fourth grade through Richard Pitts, the late founder and director of Wonder Workshop Children's Museum.

"He taught us all about the fundamentals and all about the Underground Railroad," Martinie said. "So, when he passed away last year, we decided to dedicate this project to him."

Pitts died last March at age 64 after a decade-long battle with cancer.

Pitts was a well-known figure in Manhattan. His wife Cindy referred to him as a "curious man by trade."

He wrote two books about Kansas' role in the Underground Railroad and narrated a documentary on the subject for Kansas State University and received several awards for his work. Martinie and Bush's project features those connections.

As a token of appreciation, Cindy Pitts gifted two of her husband's drums to the girls.

"Every time I think about this project, I feel Mr. Pitts is there with us," Martinie said. "It feels really nice to dedicate this project to him."

Bush said their project is an important — and still timely — one for the public to view.

"I think it's a good project to showcase because of what movements are happening right now," Bush said. "If we reflect on the past, we can fix the problems that are happening today."