Cassidy Porter is only 13 years old, but the Fruitvale Junior High School seventh-grader feels a deep connection to the Civil Rights Movement.
It started a couple of years ago, when she watched director Spike Lee's 1997 documentary "Four Little Girls." The film chronicles the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The attack killed four girls ages 11 to 14, sparking nationwide outrage and providing the Civil Rights Movement with a burst of momentum.
"They had normal lives, just like mine," Porter said. "The only difference was their skin color was different from mine. I really wanted to tell their story so they would never be forgotten."
Porter will be doing just that next week at a National History Day competition at the University of Maryland. She and two other winning entries qualified for nationals at the National History Day-California competition last month in Sacramento.
Porter is competing June 9-13 in the "individual" category with "The Story Never Dies," an exhibit and performance about the infamous church bombing.
In the "group performance" category, the Chipman Junior High School team of Miguel Vargas, Sadie Armijo, Stevie McNabb, Jake Beardsley and Dylan Pearson is presenting "No Turning Back," about the decision to use the atomic bomb in World War II.
"They've basically done a 10-minute play, complete with props and everything, about the political and social consequences of that," said Chipman social studies teacher Michael Hutson. "It's pretty spectacular, pretty amazing."
In "group exhibit," Fruitvale Junior High School students Caitlyn Richter and Kaitlyn Moss are presenting "Drake's Well: The Ability to Drill our Nation's Oil," about the first successful effort to drill for oil in 1859.
This is the duo's second time at nationals. They came in fourth place nationally last year for a presentation on the orphan trains, a movement from 1853 to 1929 to place homeless children in East Coast cities on family farms in the Midwest.
The modern foster care system grew out of that movement.
"The kids are unbelievable, the hours and dedication they put into this," said Fruitvale Junior High School Principal Leslie Roberts. "It's so much more than just sitting at a computer doing research.
"They're actually interviewing historical figures in some instances and communicating what they've learned. These are real-world skills they're acquiring."
Competitors look through libraries, archives and museums, conduct oral history interviews, and visit historic sites as part of their research, according to National History Day's website.
They then draw a conclusion about the significance of their topic and present their work in one of five ways: as a paper, an exhibit, a performance, a documentary or a website.
The nation's first driller, Edwin L. Drake, died in 1880, but the Drake's Well team is going to stop by Titusville, Pa., on the way to the competition to see the Drake Well Museum and interview its curator.
Porter is fortunate that many Civil Rights activists are still living, and she has tracked some down and spoken to them.
She started with a cold call to Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The Birmingham native was jailed for five days as a 12-year-old for participating in the Children's March, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. Former Birmingham police Chief Bull Connor spit on Hrabowski before hurling him into a police truck.
The now-grown college president granted Porter an interview and described the horror of that period to her in detail.
"He started crying," Porter said. "This was a subject he hadn't touched on in a while so it was really emotional for him."
Hrabowski put her in touch with Gayle Porter (no relation), who as a girl was friends with the children killed in the church bombing.
"That interview was almost three hours," the younger Porter said. "I really liked her from the moment I started talking to her."
The feeling was mutual. The elder Porter, joking about their shared last name, dubbed the Bakersfield girl her "13th grandchild" and sent her a historical artifact as a gift. It's an original photo of 11-year-old Denise McNair, taken by McNair's father just four months before the Sept. 15, 1963, blast that took her life and the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 years old when they died.
Cassidy Porter is stopping in Birmingham on her way to the competition to speak with other civil rights activists, as well.
This is Cassidy Porter's second time at nationals. Last year she made it with a project on the Chinese cultural revolution.
But the church bombing project is different. It has had a lifelong impact.
"I really like civil rights," Cassidy Porter said. "Now I kind of want to be a civil rights attorney when I grow up."