“A Phenomenal Story”: A Student Discovers the Barrier-Breaking Life and Work of Dr. Patricia Bath

Today’s post comes from Education Specialist Andrea (Ang) Reidell. It’s the second in a four-part series highlighting National History Day (NHD) students across the country who researched historical sources from the National Archives to create award-winning NHD documentaries. Each post features a different type of primary source. Ang spoke with student Alexandria Pereira about her research into important legislation of the 1960s, as well as genealogical records, in order to discover Dr. Bath’s story.

The journey of discovery started in Alexandria Pereira’s Contemporary World Problems class in her Washington State high school. The teacher, David Blacketer, says he always learns something new from his students in that class, and Alexandria’s National History Day project proposal for 2020 was no exception. Alexandria’s topic choice for the “Breaking Barriers in History” theme was Dr. Patricia Bath, a woman who broke racial, gender, economic, and medical barriers throughout her life.

However, Dr. Bath, an ophthalmologist, was not as generally well-known as other medical trailblazers. For Alexandria, the lack of many secondary sources about Dr. Bath’s work was a challenge, but not a deterrent. The more she learned about Dr. Bath’s story, the “more I thought people should know about it,” Alexandria recently commented. 

View Alexandria’s 2020 NHD Senior Individual Documentary, Dr. Patricia Bath: Breaking Racial, Gender, Medical, and Economic Barriers:

Alexandria began her research by reading any general overviews available about Patricia Bath. For her primary document research, Alexandria used many different sources, including DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives. Alexandria used DocsTeach to find important legislation that affected Dr. Bath’s life and work, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She also searched the National Archives catalog to find the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and found an article about women’s rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the National Archives website.

Alexandria emphasized during her interview that patience is very important when conducting primary source research because it can take quite a lot of time for any researcher to find the best information available. She recommends that students be very specific in their search terms and filters, to narrow down their searches and the number of hits they receive on each search.

Alexandria was also able to tap into National Archives resources available through the genealogical website Ancestry®. Her family had been using Ancestry® to document their own family history, and Alexandria applied skills she learned from that process to trace Dr. Bath’s family history and fill in important parts of her life story. She found census records, ship manifests, and naturalization records in that phase of her research.

Another important piece of Alexandria’s documentary project was video footage that she found at the National Archives that she couldn’t find anywhere else, including an unfinished film called “The American Negro” produced by the U.S. Information Agency. The film featured interviews with civil rights leaders including James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Ralph Metcalfe.

You can read more about how Alexandria researched and created her documentary in her NHD process paper and bibliography. Congratulations, Alexandria and Mr. Blacketer, and thank you for taking the time to share Alexandria’s documentary and research journey with us! Your thoughts about using legislative, genealogical and video resources from the National Archives will be very helpful to students and teachers conducting National History Day research. And best of luck to all with NHD this year as you explore “Communication in History!”

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