$5,000 for Your History Paper!

Enter your essay to win the Prize!

Pioneer Institute is pleased to announce the third annual Frederick Douglass Prize Essay Contest for Massachusetts high school students. Pioneer Institute is a private, non-partisan public policy think tank with a longstanding reputation for innovative education reform

We believe that Massachusetts students are capable of excellence in history. We need your essays to prove us right.



FrederickDouglassEssayContestWEBPicThe Frederick Douglass Prize asks students to respond to key questions in history. The 2015-16 contest encourages students to investigate the stories behind the many technological innovations born in Massachusetts. Choose from dozens of Bay State entrepreneurs and inventions, and develop a clearly organized and well-researched essay drawing on primary and secondary sources, that explains the greater historical impact and significance of your subject matter.



The Frederick Douglass Prize is an excellent opportunity for your students to demonstrate their strong research and writing skills before college applications begin and to meet some very remarkable people.


Sample Topics and Ideas

The innovative spirit that has animated America is particularly evident here in the Bay State. The colonists established themselves as a center of global maritime trade, and in 1795 Massachusetts businessmen built the country’s first railroad on Beacon Hill. Sample topics drawn from 20th and 21st century Massachusetts inventions include:

  • The Sewing Machine: Elias Howe, born in 1819 in Spencer, developed, the nation’s first patented sewing machine, which still contain three key features that he designed: the needle, operational lock stitch, and automatic thread feed.
  • New York’s Underground Subway: Alfred Beach, born in Springfield in 1826, invented the Beach Pneumatic Transit system to alleviate traffic.
  • Campbell’s Condensed Soup: Dr. John T. Dorrance discovered how to condense soup without sacrificing its rich taste. His invention allowed Campbell’s to save large amounts of money on shipping. One of his five original flavors became the kitchen staple “Campbell’s Tomato Soup.”
  • The Gillette Disposable Razor (1904): William E. Nickerson, a MIT-trained engineer, helped King Camp Gillette discover how to stamp a razor blade from an inexpensive steel sheet.
  • The Computer: In 1928, MIT professor Vannevar Bush engineered the first manually mechanically operated analog computer, capable of solving differential equations with up to 18 independent variables. In 1951, other MIT researchers built the first computer that operated in real time, and it was used by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War.


More Information:


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    Frederick Douglass


    Why is this contest named for Frederick Douglass?

    Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

    Frederick Douglass fled to Massachusetts after he escaped from slavery. He lived in New Bedford and Nantucket. He became one of the most important Abolitionists and one of the most important figures in American history because he was an advocate and articulator of American freedom. Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, became a bestseller.

    Douglass’ oratorical skills were so impressive that some doubted that he had been a slave, so he wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War he assisted in the recruiting of African-American men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments and fought for the emancipation of slaves. After the war he worked to protect  the rights of the freemen. He was secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, marshall and recorder of deeds of the District of Columbia, and United States Minister to Haiti. His other autobiographical works are My Bondage And My Freedom and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass, published in 1855 and 1881, respectively. He died in 1895.

    Nothing speaks to the dehumanizing impact of slavery and the accompanying deprivations than a human being not knowing their own birthday. His several autobiographies begin with this question about this basic fact of his life: “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.”

    Frederick Douglass was one of America’s great articulators of the meaning of freedom, and the importance of understanding our past. That’s why our U.S. History essay contest is named in honor of him.

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    We will recognize the top essays as follows:

    • 1st place: $5,000
    • 2nd place: $2,000
    • 3rd place: $1,000
    • Honorable Mentions: $500 each
    • School Prize: The 1st place winner’s school will receive $1,000
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    Should I enter?

    Entrants must be US citizens or resident aliens who attend a Massachusetts high school during the 2015-2016 academic year. Students who attend a boarding school in Massachusetts or are home-schooled are eligible to submit an essay. If you are interested in this year’s question and have strong writing skills, we encourage you to submit your essay.

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    Prize Schedule

    March 7, 2016: Submission Deadline. Submit your essay through the form below.

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    Argument/Analysis (40%)

    • Articulates a clear thesis supported by evidence in the essay.
    • Uses strong textual evidence.
    • Shows detailed analysis and interpretation.

    Historical Research (40%)

    • Conducts research beyond assigned texts.
    • Provides accurate historical information.
    • Demonstrates a strong understanding of the historical context.

    Writing Quality (20%)

    • Correct Grammar
    • Clear Structure
    • Voice and Tone
    • Proper Citations (MLA or footnotes)

    If you have questions on how to develop a strong thesis, to present convincing research, and to format your bibliography, we encourage you to consult A Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

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    Micaela Dawson
    The Frederick Douglass Prize Essay Contest Coordinator
    Pioneer Institute
    185 Devonshire Street, Boston MA 02110
    (617) 723-2277 ext. 203

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