Primary Sources History Essay Contest


$5,000 for Your History Paper!

Enter your essay to win the Prize!

Pioneer Institute is pleased to announce the third annual Frederick Douglass Prize Essay Contest for Massachusetts high school students. Pioneer Institute is a private, non-partisan public policy think tank with a longstanding reputation for innovative education reform

We believe that Massachusetts students are capable of excellence in history. We need your essays to prove us right.



The Frederick Douglass Prize asks students to respond to key questions in history. The 2015-16 contest encourages students to investigate the stories behind the many technological innovations born in Massachusetts. Choose from dozens of Bay State entrepreneurs and inventions, and develop a clearly organized and well-researched essay drawing on primary and secondary sources, that explains the greater historical impact and significance of your subject matter.



The Frederick Douglass Prize is an excellent opportunity for your students to demonstrate their strong research and writing skills before college applications begin and to meet some very remarkable people.


Sample Topics and Ideas

The innovative spirit that has animated America is particularly evident here in the Bay State. The colonists established themselves as a center of global maritime trade, and in 1795 Massachusetts businessmen built the country’s first railroad on Beacon Hill. Sample topics drawn from 20th and 21st century Massachusetts inventions include:

  • The Sewing Machine: Elias Howe, born in 1819 in Spencer, developed, the nation’s first patented sewing machine, which still contain three key features that he designed: the needle, operational lock stitch, and automatic thread feed.
  • New York’s Underground Subway: Alfred Beach, born in Springfield in 1826, invented the Beach Pneumatic Transit system to alleviate traffic.
  • Campbell’s Condensed Soup: Dr. John T. Dorrance discovered how to condense soup without sacrificing its rich taste. His invention allowed Campbell’s to save large amounts of money on shipping. One of his five original flavors became the kitchen staple “Campbell’s Tomato Soup.”
  • The Gillette Disposable Razor (1904): William E. Nickerson, a MIT-trained engineer, helped King Camp Gillette discover how to stamp a razor blade from an inexpensive steel sheet.
  • The Computer: In 1928, MIT professor Vannevar Bush engineered the first manually mechanically operated analog computer, capable of solving differential equations with up to 18 independent variables. In 1951, other MIT researchers built the first computer that operated in real time, and it was used by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War.


More Information:


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    Frederick Douglass

    Why is this contest named for Frederick Douglass?

    Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

    Frederick Douglass fled to Massachusetts after he escaped from slavery. He lived in New Bedford and Nantucket. He became one of the most important Abolitionists and one of the most important figures in American history because he was an advocate and articulator of American freedom. Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, became a bestseller.

    Douglass’ oratorical skills were so impressive that some doubted that he had been a slave, so he wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War he assisted in the recruiting of African-American men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments and fought for the emancipation of slaves. After the war he worked to protect  the rights of the freemen. He was secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, marshall and recorder of deeds of the District of Columbia, and United States Minister to Haiti. His other autobiographical works are My Bondage And My Freedom and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass, published in 1855 and 1881, respectively. He died in 1895.

    Nothing speaks to the dehumanizing impact of slavery and the accompanying deprivations than a human being not knowing their own birthday. His several autobiographies begin with this question about this basic fact of his life: “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.”

    Frederick Douglass was one of America’s great articulators of the meaning of freedom, and the importance of understanding our past. That’s why our U.S. History essay contest is named in honor of him.

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    We will recognize the top essays as follows:

    • 1st place: $5,000
    • 2nd place: $2,000
    • 3rd place: $1,000
    • Honorable Mentions: $500 each
    • School Prize: The 1st place winner’s school will receive $1,000
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    Should I enter?

    Entrants must be US citizens or resident aliens who attend a Massachusetts high school during the 2015-2016 academic year. Students who attend a boarding school in Massachusetts or are home-schooled are eligible to submit an essay. If you are interested in this year’s question and have strong writing skills, we encourage you to submit your essay.

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    Prize Schedule

    March 7, 2016: Submission Deadline. Submit your essay through the form below.

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    Argument/Analysis (40%)

    • Articulates a clear thesis supported by evidence in the essay.
    • Uses strong textual evidence.
    • Shows detailed analysis and interpretation.

    Historical Research (40%)

    • Conducts research beyond assigned texts.
    • Provides accurate historical information.
    • Demonstrates a strong understanding of the historical context.

    Writing Quality (20%)

    • Correct Grammar
    • Clear Structure
    • Voice and Tone
    • Proper Citations (MLA or footnotes)

If you have questions on how to develop a strong thesis, to present convincing research, and to format your bibliography, we encourage you to consultA Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

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    Micaela Dawson
    The Frederick Douglass Prize Essay Contest Coordinator
    Pioneer Institute
    185 Devonshire Street, Boston MA 02110
    (617) 723-2277 ext. 203

  • Some common questions related to the contest. Don't see yours answered? Email us at

    Can I change the title or topic of my entry?

    Students can change the title of their entry from one level of the contest to the next level. However, the topic of a project may not change once the project enters a competition (local, regional, or affiliate).

    Is the 500 word limit in an exhibit category separate from the 500 word limit for the process paper?

    Yes, the title page, process paper, and bibliography are considered as being separate from the exhibit and do not count towards the 500-word limit for the exhibit itself.

    Can you have pictures in a paper, like illustrations, graphs, etc.?

    Illustrations are acceptable. Captions do not count in the word total. Make sure that illustrations are directly related to the text, and don’t overdo them. The people who volunteer as paper judges tend to be quite text-based, and they’re probably not going to be impressed by excessive illustrations.

    Can I use a fictional 1st person in a paper or performance?

    Yes. At the beginning of the Category Rules for papers in the National History Day Rule Book, there’s a description of papers: “A paper is the traditional form of presenting historical research. Various types of creative writing (for example, fictional diaries, poems, etc.) are permitted, but must conform to all general and category rules. Your paper should be grammatically correct and well written.” The rules state, “A performance is a dramatic portrayal of your topic’s significance in history and must be original in production.” A performance is not simply an oral report or a recitation of facts. You can make up characters to make a broader historical point, but don’t make up history. While performances must have dramatic appeal, that appeal should not be at the expense of historical accuracy.

    Therefore, it is possible to have fictional characters, for example, writing a fictional diary. However, you need to make sure that you cite sources just as you would for a traditional paper or in a performance. Most importantly, it still has to be historically accurate. You can make up the character, but the circumstances and events of the character’s life and which that character witnesses or participates in should be based on historical facts.

    What is a primary source?

    Primary sources are materials directly related to a topic by time or participation. These materials include letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles from the time, oral history interviews, documents, photographs, artifacts, or anything else that provides contemporary accounts about a person or event.

    Some materials might be considered primary sources for one topic but not for another. For example, a newspaper article about D-Day (which was June 6, 1944) written in June 1944 would be a primary source; an article about D-Day written in June 2001 probably was not written by an eyewitness or participant and would not be a primary source. Similarly, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered soon after the 1863 battle, is a primary source for the Civil War, but a speech given on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1963 is not a primary source for the Civil War. If there’s any doubt about whether a source should be listed as primary or secondary, you should explain in the annotation why you chose to categorize it as you did.

    Are interviews with experts primary sources?

    No, an interview with an expert (a professor of Civil War history, for example) is not a primary source, UNLESS that expert actually lived through and has first-hand knowledge of the events being described.

    If I find a quote from a historical figure in my textbook or another secondary source and I use the quote in my project, should I list it as a primary source?

    No, quotes from historical figures which are found in secondary sources are not considered primary sources. The author of the book has processed the quotation, selecting it from the original source. Without seeing the original source for yourself, you don’t know if the quotation is taken out of context, what else was in the source, what the context was, etc.

    Should I list each photograph or document individually?

    You should handle this differently in notes than in the bibliography. When you are citing sources for specific pieces of information or interpretations, such as in footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual document or photograph. In the bibliography, however, you would cite only the collection as a whole, not all the individual items. You should include the full title of the collection (e.g., Digges-Sewall Papers or the Hutzler Collection), the institution and city or city/state where the collection is located (e.g., Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore). You can use the annotation to explain that this collection provided 7 photographs which you used in your exhibit or that collection provided14 letters which were important in helping you trace what happened. The same treatment applies to newspaper articles. In the footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual articles and issues of a newspaper. In the bibliography, you would list only the newspaper itself, not the individual issues or articles; you can use the annotation to explain that you used X number of days of the newspaper for your research.

    How many sources should I have for my annotated bibliography?

    We can’t tell you a specific number of sources, as that will vary by the topic and by the resources to which you have reasonable access. For some topics, such as the Civil War or many 20th-century US topics, there are many sources available. For other topics, such as those in ancient history or non-US history, there likely are far fewer sources available. The more good sources you have, the better, but don’t pad your bibliography. Only list items which you actually use; if you looked at a source but it didn’t help you at all, don’t list it in your bibliography.

    You do need to find both primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources help you to put your topic in context, that is, to see how your topic relates to the big picture and to understand its long-term causes and consequences. Primary sources help you develop your own interpretation and make your project lively and personal.

    As much as possible, your research should be balanced, considering the viewpoints of all relevant groups. That means different perspectives, different genders, different nations, different socioeconomic/ethnic/religious groups, etc. What balanced means will vary depending on your topic.


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