National History Day at Perkins

Six male student sit around a horseshoe-shaped table with large bound volumes with raised type in front of them

A history class at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston, circa 1900.

December 15, 2017

Every year we enjoy hearing from middle and high school students from around the country who are working on National History Day (NHD) projects. Not surprisingly, their research frequently features topics relating to Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

National History Day is “an innovative curriculum framework in which students learn history by selecting topics of interest and launching into year-long research projects.” The work culminates with the NHD Contest. Each year, NHD focuses on a theme “to provide a lens through which students can examine history” and students explore it through projects, papers, or presentations.

This year’s theme is Conflict and Compromise in History. More information about the theme is available on the NHD website. It encourages students to “view history through multiple perspectives” as they consider questions such as:

  • What happens when a compromise lasts for only a short time?
  • What happens when neither side is willing to compromise?
  • How can compromise resolve an ongoing conflict? How has compromise been used to end conflict throughout history?
  • What causes conflict between people?

While many people know about Anne and Helen, we wanted to highlight some specific topics in our collection that fit the theme but may not be as well-known.

  • War of the Dots: Before braille as we know it became the standard writing system for people who are blind or visually impaired, there was a competition between three systems: New York System, American Braille, and English Braille. Around 1916, an agreement was finally reached that settled on English Braille. More information can be found here. We have examples of writing systems for the blind and proposed alphabets for the blind as well as historical articles about the debate.
  • Frost King: In 1891, 11 year old Helen Keller sent Perkins director Michael Anagnos a short story that she had written for his birthday. Anagnos was so impressed by the story that he printed it in the Annual Report. Readers recognized the story as one that had been previously published by another author. People accused Keller of plagiarism and said that her explanation was a lie. We have a copy of the original letter Keller sent to Anagnos and many documents (including correspondence) relating to the debate that ensued. You can read more about the episode in Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life.
  • Anne Sullivan’s self-advocacy: Anne’s life is full of times when she had to advocate for her own needs. While living at the Tewksbury Almshouse, she spoke up and asked to be educated. This led to her becoming a student at Perkins, where she had to figure out how to make the most of her education and fit into a very different environment. Later in her life, she had to advocate for her student, Helen Keller, to receive an appropriate education. We have documents about Sullivan’s time at Perkins, her trip to Tuscumbia to teach Keller, and the turmoil she faced along the way.
  • Helen Keller’s time at Radcliffe: In 1904, Helen Keller became the first deafblind person to graduate from college. She entered Radcliffe College in 1899 after much discussion about whether or not she would be able to do the work. That discussion continued to the very end when people questioned whether or not she completed her examinations alone. We have correspondence about the debate, and copies of her examinations.
  • “Insiders vs. outsiders” after the 1917 Halifax Explosion: Following a tremendous explosion in Halifax Harbour, ophthalmologists (then called “oculists”) and other help from around the area made their way to Halifax to help treat patients. Some local oculists, however, were insulted by the “outsider’s” efforts and resisted their help. Local authorities had to work with both sides to come to an agreement that allowed them both to help. We have correspondence and reports about the resistance. (Note: This is a newly digitized collection that has just been made available -- no one has used it for research yet!)

These are just a few of many possible topics that we would be happy to help you research. If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear from you and help if we can! You can reach the Research Librarian by e-mailing or by calling 617-972-7250.