Grace Wildermuth wanted to engage in meaningful research as she went about developing a project for this year’s National History Day competition. The Huntington High School junior decided to study school integration in Malverne, New York and the nearly 2,500 word paper she wrote won a top award in a very strong field.
Ms. Wildermuth vied in the senior division historical paper category, crafting an articulate, informative and well-balanced project. Her paper, titled “Malverne, New York: How School Integration Failed to Break Barriers,” was very well-received by local contest judges, who praised the teenager’s research skills and analysis and interpretation of data.
Huntington High School junior Grace Wildermuth
“More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregated schools, segregation has increased on Long Island,” states the opening paragraph of Ms. Wildermuth’s paper. “Today, two out of three Hispanic students and three out of four black students attend majority-minority segregated school districts. One of these districts is the Malverne Union Free School District, located in Hempstead, Nassau County. The district was the first in New York ordered to integrate by the state education commissioner, resulting in tensions between white parent associations, who strengthened barriers to equal education and black parents and activists, who attempted to break barriers. The reorganization of the district in order to integrate was barrier-breaking in the short term, but unsuccessful in the long term. Integration efforts in Malverne prove that segregation was not only a southern issue, but a northern one.”
Ms. Wildermuth is an excellent student and is widely regarded as one of the brightest stars of Huntington’s Class of 2021. She has forged close working relationships with her teachers and is well-known for producing impeccable academic work.
While the landmark US Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was issued in 1954, civil rights battles were far from over. The court ordered desegregation of the Malverne UFSD took effect on February 23, 1966 and it was anything but universally embraced.
“I went into the project looking for a topic that really mattered to me,” Ms. Wildermuth said. “I like social history and I was originally thinking about doing something related to the women’s rights movement, but I couldn’t find something that hadn’t been said many times already. Mr. [Kenneth] Donovan suggested looking into integration in Long Island schools since I was also interested in looking at local history.”
Ms. Wildermuth had to balance the untold hours she spent developing her project with the demands of her academic schedule and other interests. She considers the time she spent on research to be well worth it.
“I loved learning about something that happened to students on Long Island because it gave me a personal connection to my topic; it made it easier to imagine myself in their shoes,” Ms. Wildermuth said. “Though it was challenging, I also enjoyed looking into a topic that is rarely talked about. It made me feel like I was doing a historian’s work and not just writing a summary of secondary sources.”
The teenager engaged in a depth of research usually unheard of on the high school level. It reached heights that even most college undergraduates don’t even have to scale.
“Most of my research was done by looking at local newspaper databases,” Ms. Wildermuth said. “I didn’t have any secondary sources to look through that were directly related to my topic. I spent many painful hours reading articles from Newsday, the New York Times and smaller Long Island newspapers. I also looked at current school demographics on Long Island and in Malverne specifically to determine whether the desegregation that occurred in the 60s was ultimately successful.”
Having her project be so well received is certainly satisfying for the Huntington junior. “Though I’m disappointed the Long Island regional and state competitions have been cancelled, I’m still happy to have written something I’m proud of.” Ms. Wildermuth said. “It was ultimately a good experience and my writing and research skills have vastly improved because of National History Day.”