Belle Vernon students show grasp of history

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Belle Vernon Area Middle School student Rebecca Holderbaum's journey to create a poster about Native Americans committing atrocities against area settlers began with a trip last summer to Ryerson State Park in Greene County.

It was in the state park west of Waynesburg that the eighth-grade student heard about the massacre of the Davis family in about 1790. Her interested sparked, she dug into the region's history and learned about several other massacres of settlers by the Native Americans, which she said in her project was a precursor to the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.

Standing next to her exhibit, “Atrocity Across the Appalachia: The Forgotten Cause of the Whiskey Rebellion,” at the recent Primary Sources History Day Competition at California University of Pennsylvania, Holderbaum said she wanted to tell the story of the early-day settlers once she realized what they were fighting for.

“I didn't know many of the causes of the rebellion at all to start with, but when I realized that Native American attacks had something to do with it, I thought it was interesting. I had no idea it was that complicated,” Holderbaum said last week.

Holderbaum was one of about 68 students from the Belle Vernon Area, Brownsville Area, Fort Cherry, Trinity and Uniontown Area school districts who competed in the Primary Sources History Day Competition at California University of Pennsylvania on Feb. 26. During the past several months, the students did research and analysis on historical persons, significant events or issues to create the projects – on posterboard, videos, documentaries, websites, performances and historical research papers.

With assistance from her mother, Cathie, a graphic designer, she created her elaborate exhibit, complete with artwork from famed Eastern Indian painter Robert Griffing and information about the massacres. She won a second-place award for her exhibit.

The projects and topics varied from local history like Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763, national history like the evolution of rights for African Americans and women's rights to international topics such as Nazi Germany armaments minister Albert Speer, created by a distant relative of Speer's.

The competition among classmates and among students from other schools helped to prepare them for the recent regional National History Day competition. Almost 500 students from 27 schools in four counties participated in the contest on March 1 and 2 at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Two Belle Vernon Area High School students, Jessica Moody and Tim Hudak, as well as five middle school students — Dylan Haney, Bradley Kennedy, Jacob Davis, Jordan Hartman and Taylor Cooper — received awards to advance to the state competition at Millersville University of Pennsylvania on May 12 and 13.

Working on the history projects also helps to prepare the students for college, said Michael J. Brna, director of the teacher professional development program for Cal U's Teaching with Primary Sources program, which sponsored the contest in collaboration with Cal U's history and political science department.

“It involves reading, writing, listening skills, as well as research skills. It gives them a chance to share what is their passion,” said Brna, who leads a Library of Congress-funded program that primarily serves teachers in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The history competition was great way for the students to use primary sources in the classroom, said Tony Salvucci, a Brownsville Area High School history teacher who brought 10 students who produced three exhibits in the competition. It was the first year that Brownsville fielded a team in the competition, Salvucci said.

“This year was a learning experience for me and the students,” Salvucci said.

Two Brownsville Area High School juniors produced anexhibit on the evolution of African American rights from the 1600s to the present, focusing on how much their rights and responsibilities have improved. Brooke Murray and Victoria Dubos said they were inspired to select the topic, “The Evolution of African American Privileges,” because they are studying the issue in school and the U.S. has its first African-American president in Barack Obama.

Former Brownsville Mayor Norma Ryan, who joined with retired educators, students and staff from Cal U and the Heinz History Center in judging the exhibits, was impressed with what the students had created.

“These young students put so much thought and energy into one subject. It gives you inspiration for the future,” Ryan said.

Ryan was pleased that students from Brownsville Area High School, who are from a town with so much history dating back to the colonial period, were participating in the History Day contest for the first time.

“I'm really inspired to know there are young kids who care about history,” Ryan said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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