What began as a look back at personal history for a class project has taken recent Penn State Brandywine 2009 graduate Dana Gibson on a path to a future she never imagined.
Gibson received the Roundtable Best Undergraduate Essay award by the Mid Atlantic American Studies Association (MAASA), for her thesis "'Am I Your Slave?': William Parker and The Freedman's Story." The text was judged for quality and contribution to knowledge, according to Gibson's thesis adviser Phyllis Cole, professor of English and American Studies, who encouraged her to submit her paper for consideration.
Having always possessed a love for history, Gibson was intrigued when an uncle told her about a distance relative, specifically her great-great-great-great grandfather Miller Knott, who had witnessed and even testified in the trial that followed the Christiana Riot, which took place on September 11, 1851, in Christiana, Pa. involving a former slave named William Parker.
Immediately drawn to the subject by the fact that people in her hometown of Christiana remain, for the most part, unaware of such an important part of history--most likely because slave-owners and those on the opposite side of Parker wanted it that way--Gibson decided to go digging.
She found interesting comments by her own family members and their neighbors, but most of all a little-known, published account by William Parker himself of events at Christiana and their significance. Her thesis studies this narrative and puts it in context of America's epic battle over slavery, before and during the Civil War.
This is a story that she thinks every Christiana resident--as well as national scholars of nineteenth-century American literature--should know about. To make that story available, she hopes to publish an edition of Parker's narrative.
"I want it published in a way that the people of Christiana know about it," she said. "I think it will give the residents an understanding of how close and important the [resistance] was and give them the facts from Parker's own perspective."
On winning the award: "When I found out that I won I thought it was a joke," she said excitedly. "It's pretty terrific. I feel great about it!
"Dr. Cole told me I had a good chance of winning but I only sort of believed her," she laughed.
Cole was equally as enthusiastic about the honor and Gibson's dedication to the topic. "The wonderful thing about her paper is that it is part of both Pennsylvania and United States history," she said. "It was national news and the uprising is very important, and most of all, Parker's eloquent words need to be better known. This is a story worth publishing."
As her thesis adviser and close mentor, Cole spoke proudly about Gibson and her dedication to the project. "She followed her instincts and really put it together," she said warmly. "She has made great personal strides on campus, as an English major and American studies minor and in the honors program. Her project has meant a lot to me and also shows how far undergraduate students can go in accomplishing real research."
MAASA is the regional chapter of the American Studies Association, organized to promote and encourage the study of American Culture in the Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania areas.