AUGUSTA — An Augusta charter school student is receiving national attention for her history research project.
An exhibit researched and created by 11th-grader Madelyn Davis is one of 51 nationwide and the only one from Wisconsin featured in an online showcase that debuted Tuesday via the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Davis attended Wildlands Science Research School, a charter school in the Augusta school district.
The projects selected for the Smithsonian exhibit were created for the 2021 National History Day, a competition that attracts middle and high school students from the Chippewa Valley and across the nation. Many of the featured projects, picked by NHD state coordinators, addressed topics relevant to their own states’ or local communities’ histories. The exhibits also reflect the 2021 NHD theme “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.”
“Despite the ongoing pandemic that prevents us from featuring this work live in the National Museum of American History, the virtual nature of this showcase allows us to leverage modern technology to share student work that addresses important movements and advancements in the history of communication from their own backyards,” National History Day executive director Cathy Gorn said in a news release. “These students have recognized, researched and refined powerful stories of communication breakthroughs and pioneers of the past. We are so grateful to our partners at the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Learning Lab for making this showcase accessible to millions of people around the world.”
Davis’ project focuses on Milwaukee civil rights activist Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to graduate from the UW–Madison law school, win a seat on Milwaukee’s City Council, become a judge and be elected secretary of state of Wisconsin. Phillips successfully led a six-year fight for a fair housing law that enabled Blacks to get housing anywhere in Milwaukee and not just in the poorest area, known as the Inner Core.
“I would say that her project and the recognition it is receiving on a national level is exceptional,” Augusta district Superintendent Ryan Nelson said of Davis. “The fact that Madelyn’s project was one of only 51 in the entire country selected to be part of the Smithsonian Learning Lab speaks to the quality of her project, as well as her high degree of commitment and energy to it. As a school district, we are very proud of her and her work. She is very deserving of such recognition.”
Andrew Johnson, a middle school social studies teacher at Wildlands who coordinates the NHD program for its middle and high school students, also expressed excitement over the honor.
“One thing I would say that really stands out about Madelyn’s project is the truly independent nature of her research,” Johnson said, explaining that she received very little guidance from teachers. “She just kind of took care of business on her own.”
This was the fourth year Davis has completed an NHD project, and she said she was thrilled to qualify for the national competition for the first time.
When picking her topic, Davis said she wanted to choose a person who was from Wisconsin and made a difference in civil rights through peaceful actions.
“I was interested in Vel Phillips because she worked tirelessly to change the living conditions for Blacks living in the Inner Core in Milwaukee,” Davis said. “Vel Phillips used peaceful protests and her platform as a council member to change rights for Blacks in Milwaukee for future generations.”
Part of Davis’ exhibit was designed to look like a house from Milwaukee’s Inner Core.
“Madelyn was passionate about her topic, and that shines through in the quality of her work,” added Johnson, who was Wisconsin’s 2021 National History Day teacher of the year and is a finalist for the national award.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History director Anthea Hartig said she is excited and grateful to recognize the work of young scholars and share it across the Smithsonian’s national network.
“We hope this virtual exhibition will encourage other young historians to continue to critically examine history, ask questions and conduct original research,” Hartig said in the release. “Their work helps tell the complicated, difficult and beautiful stories of the United States.”