Wearing a brown suit and paint on his face to depict the wrinkles of someone much older, Eric Nelson (as Branch Rickey) seated himself at a desk and told a small audience how he signed Jackie Robinson, major league baseball's first black player, to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He interrupted his own speech to tune in to a "radio broadcast" that recreated the 1947 Dodgers game against the Cincinnati Reds, in which the white player Howard Reese put his arm around Robinson on the field.

"Jackie just sticks out to me," said Nelson, a seventh-grade student at Joplin East Middle School, after his skit. "He played a big role in baseball history because if he didn't succeed in his role, baseball would be completely different today."

Nelson's performance was one of nearly 200 entries Friday in the regional History Day competition, which was hosted by Missouri Southern State University. Students from more than 15 schools researched topics in local, state, national or international history and presented their subjects as papers, exhibits, performances, documentaries or websites. The theme for this year's event was "Taking a Stand in History."

Nelson, a self-proclaimed baseball fan, said the story of Robinson and his success at breaking down the color barrier in American baseball naturally attracted him as a History Day topic. As part of his research, he read newspaper articles and columns that had been written at the time by both black and white authors.

"My favorite part about History Day is doing the research," he said. "It's always fun to see little snippets of information that nobody will ever tell you without having lived in that time."

Social justice reformers

Rivaldo Angulo, an eighth-grade student at Carthage Junior High School, competed with a website he created about Malcolm X, a black Muslim activist who was assassinated in 1965.

"I chose Malcolm X because I never really learned about him in school, and I feel like he's not as well known as Martin Luther King Jr. even though they stood up for the same cause," he said. "I was pretty passionate about my topic this year. He was very controversial during his time, and I like that."

Emma Ryan, a freshman at Carthage High School, focused her project on Bayard Rustin, an American activist who helped organize multiple marches, including the 1963 march on Washington. Because Rustin was both black and gay, people tried to push him out of the social justice movement, she said.

Ryan said she hoped her project would enlighten others of the minorities and other marginalized groups who fought for justice for all.

"I hope that people know who (Rustin) is and what he did to help end segregation and discrimination, and I hope that people know or learn that they shouldn’t discriminate against people because of their sexuality or their race because people like that can do so much good in the world," she said.

Gabriel Wilson, an eighth-grader from Carthage, wanted a topic that was a little different from everyone else's, so he zeroed in on the Zodiac Killer and the serial murderer's relationship with the police who hunted him. 

"The fact that the case was never solved and that he taunted the police was really interesting to me," he said. "I think history is an important topic because it teaches us about how we got here and if some of these things didn’t happen, life could be a lot different."

Feminists and suffragettes

A.J. Hughes, a seventh-grader at Joplin South Middle School, focused her project on Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer, philosopher and advocate for women's rights during the 18th century. Hughes said she was impressed by the woman's insistence, during a time when feminism was not widely accepted, that women deserved to have the education that they wanted.

"I decided to do History Day because this was something great that she (Wollstonecraft) took a stand for because women were too scared to speak up for themselves, and she had that voice," Hughes said.

Alyssa Frischenmeyer, a sophomore at Carthage High School, created a website for the competition that focused on suffragettes and their fight for the right to vote during the early 20th century.

"I like the fact that women stood up for what they wanted," she said. "They didn't let men boss them around. They stood up for what they believed."

Frischenmeyer has participated in History Day for several years now, and she keeps coming back for the opportunity to meet new people and to learn more about subjects that interest her.

"I like learning what others have learned about and seeing the projects and all the creativity that goes with it," she said.

Mary Stockam, a gifted program teacher at Carthage Junior High School, said History Day is the best competition that her students participate in because of the rigor that it requires.

"It stretches them, and I have seventh-graders that are doing college-level work," she said. "The accomplishment, the sigh of relief when it's over, is phenomenal."

Next steps

Winners from Friday's History Day contest, one of nine in Missouri, will have the opportunity to compete in the state History Day event on April 29 at the University of Missouri. The state winners will advance to the national contest in June in College Park, Maryland.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.