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Grantee Spotlight: Ray Palin

It was very exciting for me and my students to win an award in NEH’s 2016 Chronicling America Data Challenge. This work amounted to a new type of research assignment for my students—one that resulted in a product made possible by big data, online queries, and new web-based tools.

My students examined nationwide press coverage of Plessy v. Ferguson. Thanks to the Chronicling America website, my students were able to find both patterns of coverage and non-coverage of this important 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws and established the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

One of their goals was to uncover differences among newspapers by geographic area and to speculate as to what accounted for the variations. Students had to think about the idea of finding something by finding nothing. They learned that the omission of information might signal local disinterest or perhaps even whitewashing.

After downloading web data and organizing it into spreadsheets, my students produced data visualizations of the Plessy findings. Using this initial work as a blueprint for additional research, they went on to pursue other investigations, identifying trends in coverage for several U.S. history topics, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, the KKK, and secession.

I am so proud of their work with Chronicling America. My students didn’t just read and write about history, they uncovered history.

Ray Palin's AP U.S. History students won the K-12 student prize for the Chronicling America Historic American Newspapers Data Challenge. Chronicling America makes more than 12 million pages of historic newspapers available online, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between NEH and the Library of Congress.