Three students were named winners of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) creative writing contest based on Civil War-era documents relating to slavery and Emancipation.
The Emancipation Nation Student Contest asked students to submit an original piece of writing that reinterpreted or responded to historical documents available through two NEH-supported online databases: The Freedmen and Southern Society Project and Visualizing Emancipation. The contest was open to US citizens 18 years of age or older enrolled in a high school, community college, four year college or university or graduate program. Contest participants submitted original works in a wide range of formats, including essays, first-person narratives, poems, plays, and videos, reflecting on the history of Emancipation.
Drew Barker, a master’s candidate at the University of Maryland in theater and performance studies, was awarded first place for his one-act play, “Freedom’s Fortress.” Based on testimony by the Superintendent of Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission in 1863, Barker’s play envisions a discussion between Union officials of the thousands of fugitive and freed slaves who traveled from the South to join the Union army.
Kelly Vicars, a senior studying cultural anthropology and creative writing at Stanford University, was named runner-up for her original poem “Butter.” Vicars’ poem, inspired by a complaint lodged by a freed slave, Cornelia Whitley, against her employer in 1865, imagines Cornelia’s thoughts as she churns butter after being beaten for arriving late to work because she was tending to sick child.
Avery Irons, a student in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, received an honorable mention for a first-person letter written from the point of view of a Confederate soldier to his sister regarding the death of a former slave turned Union guide. Her entry was a response to an 1863 report from Kempsville, Virginia describing the disappearance of an African-American guide and other members of a Union army advance team during an ambush.
In addition to a cash prize of $500 for the first place entrant, and $250 each for the runner-up and honorable mention entrants, the three winners will receive a two-night trip to Washington DC, where they will receive guided tours of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and President Lincoln’s Cottage.
The Emancipation Nation Student Contest is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities' commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Emancipation. The contest coincided with other commemorative events, including a webcast panel discussion by five prominent Civil War historians of the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial featuring U.S. Congressman John Lewis, Howard University’s Afro Blue jazz vocal ensemble, and readings on Emancipation by actors Alfre Woodard and Tyree Young.