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Laurel High students holding history in their hands

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A treasure was recently unearthed at Laurel High School — it wasn't a chest filled with gold and jewels, but a treasure of historical wonders, and the school is working with the Laurel Historical Society to preserve it.

About two months ago, a custodian found boxes in a supply closet containing scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and photos from Laurel High's 114-year history. The oldest item found was a diploma from 1900. Since Laurel is the oldest high school in Prince George's County, opening its doors in 1899, Dale Brennan figures it's one of the first diplomas in the county.

"My first thought was, 'You have to be kidding me,' " said Brennan, a social studies and history teacher at Laurel High. "It's like they found a hidden treasure. For a history person, this is just the ultimate. It's like hitting the history lottery, like finding buried treasure."

Every Tuesday after school, students and history department staff have been going through the scrapbooks with the help of members of the Laurel Historical Society, working to preserve the past.

Lindsey Baker, executive director of the Historical Society, said such a large collection of documents is a rare find.

"People find things and call us all the time, but it's usually little things," she said. "People uncover all kind of things when they move into new homes or do a deep clean — for instance, we got a call recently about a set of commemorative coasters from the opening of the Laurel Mall — but finding this many scrapbooks, this much information, is very rare."

Opening up the scrapbooks is a way to open up history, and what's inside can provide a valuable asset to the Historical Society, Baker said.

"We easily talk about Laurel High being the first high school in the county, and we can easily talk about what segregation looked like in Prince George's County, she said, "We have documents and photos to back that up.

"But the more recent history is something we struggle with. We try to identify stories and save them, and having these things from the 1970s, '80s means we can share our more recent history. Those are stories we definitely try to tell, but we don't always have the ability to do so. Finding a collection like this is pretty valuable."

Helping hands

Among myriad educational opportunities the scrapbooks afford, cataloging them and their contents is also a way for students to learn about archival work and preservation practices. The adage "many hands make light work" applies, as the students are moving through the documents at a pace impossible for the Historical Society to do on its own. There's simply not enough manpower in the Historical Society, Baker said.

Students, who are members of the recently formed Laurel High School Historical Society, spend time after school going through the books, page by page, cataloging each photo, each newspaper clipping.

Baker taught the students — sometimes as few as five or six, sometimes as many as 16 — to come to the scrapbooking sessions with clean, dry hands. They do not wear gloves. When working with paper as old as what's in the scrapbooks, cotton gloves run the risk of catching on and tearing the pages as the students hold history in their hands, Baker said.

"I feel so nervous turning the pages," said senior Alissa Mills. "They're all breaking off slowly. It's stressful."

Students take photos of each scrapbook page and upload each image to an online cloud for the Laurel Historical Society. Eventually, all the pages will be scanned, too, creating a searchable database people can peruse at the society.

Baker and members of the school's history department are still trying to figure out what to do with all the information gathered, and they have considered creating an exhibit at the school or Historical Society. The school is also in need of funds for archival paper, so the photos and clippings can be stored without fear of such rapid deterioration.

By working through their history, students are actually making history, said social studies teacher Brian Wenk.

"They're archiving things that will make a mark on Laurel's history," he said. "They're preserving these things for posterity, for future generations. These scrapbooks are kind of like students' Facebooks before there was Facebook, essentially a chronicle of students' lives and of Laurel High. People years from now can better reflect on the past, and these students are realizing that they too are a part of Laurel history."

Separate from the scrapbooks is a folder filled with dozens of photos without dates, though some do have students' names written on the backs. This is where historical investigation comes in, Brennan said: Can the students deduce the year of the photo from hairstyles, clothing or cars in the photo? It's tricky, however, especially when a photo that looks like it's from the 1960s is actually identified as being taken during a "60s Day," and the students are in costumes, rather than clothes that truly indicate the style of whatever time it was taken.

Every once in a while, students think they recognize family members in the old photos of forgotten fashion.

"We do document analysis in class, but not on such a personal level," Brennan said. "This is a tangible part of history, and the students are seeing how their school, and they themselves, fit into this history."

The scrapbooks are also offering insight to what students are learning in the classroom, Brennan said. His Advanced Placement U.S. history class will be learning about the civil rights movement in a couple of months — a part of history that's played out in the scrapbook pages before students now.

"There's the photo of the Laurel High football team from 1959, and there are black students on the team," Brennan said. "Prince George's County wasn't ordered to desegregate until 1974, so what does that tell us about Laurel? Did we desegregate earlier than that? Or were students from Lakeland High [the school for black students] playing football on the Laurel team?"

As the students get closer and closer to finishing up the cataloging, Brennan hopes they realize just how incredible the work they're doing actually is.

"You're holding history. You get to touch it, feel it, breathe it, smell it," Brennan said. "This is so cool."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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