Case Study
Innovative use of “The Civil War” at Urbana University

“Extraordinarily useful....the ability swiftly to locate these  stories...proved invaluable.”
— J. Michael Rhyne, Associate Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, Urbana University

Challenge
History students at Urbana University, a small university in west central Ohio specializing in liberal arts education, were given the task of gathering information about the Underground Railroad in Ohio. The students focused on the story of Addison White and the event that took place in the tiny neighboring town of Mechanicsburg—an event that would lead to a federal court case to determine the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act.

According to Julie Ann McDaniel, a librarian at Urbana University’s Swedenborg Memorial Library, many local students knew vaguely of the story of White, a runaway slave from Kentucky, but did not know enough specifics to craft an account of what happened nearby in 1857.

Solution
Using The Civil War: Antebellum Period to Reconstruction, an online resource, the students were able to trace reports of and reaction to the story and court case from newspapers throughout the United States. What started as a local event—the townspeople of Mechanicsburg arriving with pitchforks and carpet beaters to chase the slave catchers away that were sent to bring White back to his master—soon became a nationwide story.

“Our students were able to see how details were distorted, overlooked and misreported,” said McDaniel. “They were able to see how differing opinions tinged the reporting about the case.”

As a result of the research the history students did using the database, theatre students and faculty were able to create a Readers Theatre piece titled “Law and Disorder” that was shared with more than 150 people from the campus and community. Students read text from newspapers to recreate the events, and involved the audience by asking them to vote which newspaper reports represented their views.

Urbana history professor J. Michael Rhyne, Ph.D, said the database allowed his students to put the Addison White case in national perspective, coinciding as it did with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Dred Scott case. “We found that readers throughout the nation received detailed accounts in their newspapers of events in and around what we had assumed to be the sleepy little hamlet of Mechanicsburg, Ohio,” he said.

Ultimately, the information provided by The Civil War: Antebellum Period to Reconstruction enabled students to conduct primary source research without extensive travel or time delays waiting for microfilm reels to arrive through interlibrary loan. “It allowed our students to see a historical event reveal itself as they moved from one report to the next,” noted McDaniel. “And by using the Readers Theatre format to share the story of Addison White, they demonstrated their learning and understanding of the complex case in a unique way.”

About the Institution
Urbana University was founded in 1850. With an enrollment of nearly 1,500 students, it is small enough to foster close connections between faculty and students, but large enough to provide cutting-edge programs that will help students build the skills necessary to succeed in the career path of their choice.

About the Product
The Civil War: Antebellum Period to Reconstruction—a winner of Choice’s 2010 Outstanding Academic Title award—contains primary source materials selected from the acclaimed Archive of Americana. Researchers are able to search relevant subsets of America’s Historical Newspapers, American Broadsides and Ephemera and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set.

 

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