Exploration, Encounter and Exchange in History: Researching Examples from Maryland and Your Local Community

October 14, 2015
by David Armenti, Student Research Center Coordinator at the Maryland Historical Society

Did you know that convict laborers from Great Britain worked alongside enslaved Africans and African Americans in Maryland, throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries?

How about the contribution of German-Americans, who were responsible for much of the early development of Western Maryland, while also establishing many industrial and cultural institutions in 19th century Baltimore?

Many don’t know that Baltimore Polytechnic Institute was the first public school below the Mason-Dixon line to integrate its student body, nearly a full two years before Brown v. Board of Education put an end to “separate but equal” schools nationwide.

Maryland has dozens of largely unknown stories like these, which are just waiting to be unearthed and publicized by student researchers. Since its inception, Maryland has seen Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange occur in fascinating ways, often before the more well-known national examples that one might learn about in school. Additionally, we are extremely fortunate that so many of the original documents, images, and recordings have been preserved for researchers to bring this history to life. For years, local students have been able to take advantage of the primary source collections made available at cultural institutions such as the Maryland Historical Society. By focusing on their own communities, History Day students become more personally invested in the research and have a genuine opportunity to affect the way their classmates and neighbors understand the places where they live!

 “The Maryland Historical Society’s primary sources and collections provided a truly unique research experience. Original records from the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics provided authentic information and it was amazing to be able to view these documents and gain information from them. MdHS has done a fantastic job in keeping all of the records and I would not have been able to reach the depth of information I had gained with my History Day project if I had not had received access to this information!”  – Megha Sharma, whose individual performance, “Children at Work: The Government’s Neglect of Children’s Rights during Baltimore’s Industrial Revolution” was an NHD finalist in 2014.


What Resources are available, and how do they support my research?

  • Manuscripts – Our library houses more than 5 million individual manuscripts, representing the experience of Marylanders from as early as the beginning of the English colony in the 1630’s. Students can read letters between family members divided by the Civil War, or examine farm account books that provide us with fascinating glimpses into the lives of enslaved people and their owners. For those researching the personal perspectives related to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, Slavery, the Civil War, Agriculture or Industry, manuscript collections are an essential resource!
  • Oral Histories – There may be no primary source as powerful as an oral history interview, which features the words of those people who actually lived through the historical events being researched. Mostly compiled from the 1970’s to today, these first-hand accounts address the local perspective of World War I, World War II, diverse immigration stories, and the Civil Rights movement, among other topics. The Neighborhood Heritage Project provides a particularly fascinating study of how various Maryland residents lived, worked, and socialized during the early/mid-20th century. Students are also strongly encouraged to do their own interviews, especially of older community members and content experts. We can help with that process too!
  • Photographs, Prints and Broadsides – Over 300 photograph collections in the society archives serve to bring a vibrant, visual catalog of the state’s history, from the 1860’s to the present. The Paul Henderson Collection introduces an unprecedented view of the early Civil Rights movement in Maryland (including leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and members of the Baltimore NAACP), as well as imagery of everyday African American families and communities during the mid-century.  Students may also be exposed to photos of the immigrant experience, rural life, architecture, transportation and industrial development, bringing local history to life in a way that cannot easily be found on the internet or in textbooks. Prints and Broadsides can take the researcher back even further, with artistic renderings of the state’s landscape, buildings, and people, so students can see their communities as they were in the 1700’s and 1800’s.


These resources and many more can be accessed through the Maryland Historical Society Library. Contact David Armenti, darmenti@mdhs.org/410-685-3750 ext. 324, to learn more or sign up for Open Archives Saturdays (October 24, November 21, and December 12).