Meet the alumni: impact lasts a lifetime!

By Georgia Humanities Staff

For the students who participate in it, National History Day‘s national event in Washington, D.C., is a day of nervous excitement—the culmination of a year’s worth of study, preparation, and competing at state and regional contests. After the competition is over, program alumni carry forward the lessons of their scholarship, but also the experience of hard work, independent thinking, and creativity. The careers of two National History Day alumni in particular, David Keesee and Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, were inspired by exposure to the program. Today, their work and its impact on Georgians young and old marks the fulfillment of the promise displayed many National History Days ago.

When David Keesee was a student at Lakeside Middle School, he created National History Day documentaries on Jackie Robinson and the Cherokees. “This was the first opportunity I had to do projects using technology, and I loved it. It showed me how visuals, narration, and music could be woven together to bring a story alive,” Keesee remembers.

In 2015 Augusta University hired Keesee, an employee of the Angelo Group Inc., to prepare films for a new museum. Keesee was also part of a team that created a film history of American military intelligence for the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence. Additionally, the Angelo Group produced a 10-minute clip used by Georgia Humanities to introduce National History Day to parents, teachers, and other stakeholders (available on YouTube). Keesee appreciated the assignment: “It was great to have an opportunity to give back to a program that has made a difference in my life.”

In 2015 Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin (or Dr. Amma, as her students and colleagues call her) joined the faculty of the University of Georgia, where she researches, teaches, and mentors undergraduate and graduate students who are exploring the African Diaspora on stage, in film, and on television. “My work is National History Day for grown-ups,” Dr. Amma says.

Dr. Amma’s journey began in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1996, when she developed a performance to share the story of Joseph Cinqué and the Amistad captives under the mentorship of her mother, Abenaa Ghartey-Tagoe, and teachers Crystal Johnson and Mickey Bogart. For that performance, she took home a gold medal and was named the National Champion of the entire contest. Through subsequent studies at Harvard and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has focused on the ways in which performance is useful for interpreting historical documents and for creating accounts that subsequently open up additional questions and ways of thinking about the past.

Dr. Amma is currently working on two projects that connect to Georgia. At Buffalo is a historical musical focusing on black performers at the 1901 World’s Fair, some of whom were Georgians. She is also writing a biography of Laughing Ben Ellington, who was born into slavery in Dublin, Georgia. Ellington became a performer due to his ability to laugh distinctively for thirty seconds to a full minute. While no sound recordings of him exist, there are extant newspaper accounts, as well as a silent film clip of him in the Library of Congress.

“Performing the archive provides a way to give voice to those whose stories were not fully recorded in the documentary record, such as Laughing Ben Ellington,” Dr. Amma explains. “It is inspiring to work with students here in Georgia and also to research and share untold stories with the public. I learned how to do that through National History Day.”

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