Bradley Curtis first discovered William Wilberforce's story through a 2006 film called "Amazing Grace."
Wilberforce played a key role in ending the British Empire's slave trade in 1807, and in the film, his story intertwines with that of John Newton, the former slave ship captain who became a priest and wrote the titular hymn. When Curtis's friends participated in the National History Day Competition last year, he took an interest in joining the competition himself. He said he found Wilberforce's story to be a natural fit for this year's competition theme: "Revolution, Reaction and Reform in History."
"Wilberforce and other abolitionists revolted against the slave trade and brought reform," Curtis said. "My paper makes the point that a person like Wilberforce who is driven by a calling from God and who is willing to sacrifice can change the world."
Curtis placed third in the junior research paper category at the National History Day Competition on the University of Maryland College Park Campus in the Washington, D.C. area on June 14.
Curtis was one of nine students from Armstrong Middle School to compete at the national level, and one of 2,800 students from across the country competing there. His mother, Cathy Curtis, said more than half a million students nationwide begin National History Day projects in the fall.
"National History Day students research historic documents and artifacts, conduct oral histories, search the Internet for information on their topics, and travel to historic sites," Cathy said. "They present their work in a variety of ways, by creating museum-type exhibits, video documentaries, original performances, web sites, or traditional research papers."
More than 300 education professionals and historians judge the students' entries at the national level, Cathy said. About 100 students took home cash prizes from $250-$5,000, she said, and some students received scholarships.
Cathy said the movie "Amazing Grace" made a deep impression on Curtis and made it easy for him to choose a topic. National History Day involves large amounts of research, she said, but Bradley has always enjoyed reading.
"He loves good stories, and there are many good stories in history, so his interest in history has been a natural development," Cathy said. "Bradley's dad and I are proud of him for the commitment he made to engage in this year-long journey."
Bradley said he used 16 secondary sources and nine primary sources for his entry, including books, abolitionist posters, a political cartoon, and letters Wilberforce himself wrote. He said the biggest challenge was revising his work after the local and state competitions.
"Trying to include judges' suggestions into my original body of work while staying within the limit of 2500 words was difficult," Bradley said. "Librarians at MSU, Wilberforce University, and Auburn Avenue Research Library were all very helpful in guiding me in my research."
Bradley said he was happy to be a finalist, and meeting students from across the country was an experience he and his fellow Armstrong competitors will never forget.
"It was very rewarding to place at the national competition after all the work," Bradley said. "I am so thankful that my school provided me and the other students from Armstrong with this opportunity to compete in National History Day."
Bradley said he is unsure what role his interest in history will play in his future career.
"History tells a story," Bradley said. "I think you can learn a lot from the experiences, successes, and mistakes that others before you have made."