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National History Day in Massachusetts

MHS 2024 Theme Page: Turning Points in History

New to this year's theme of "Turning Points in History"? Start by looking through the official National History Day 2024 Turning Points in History Theme Book and the NHD Massachusetts Annual Theme Page.

Then begin exploring the many historical resources available at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the sponsor of NHD in MA. You can begin searching for inspiration anywhere in our collections: by exploring our library catalogs, our online resources, our collection guides, or by visiting us in person. Check out our prompts below for additional inspiration!

Have research questions?  Not sure where to start?  Our Library Reader Services are happy to help!  You can contact our librarians at 617-646-0532, by email at, or via live chat and virtual reference services with any questions.

Interested in getting reproductions of materials that aren't digitized online? Learn about our reproductions policies on our website, or email with specific questions.

Turning Points in History: Prompts Through The Eras

The 17th Century and Earlier

Parchment poster titled 'Dr. Fansher's Rules, To be observed during Vaccination.' Illustrated with two scenes of figures walking titled 'Going to Vaccination' and 'Going Home.' In the first illustration two figures walk side by side, and in the second one they are supporting each other as they try to walk.

  • Variolation and Vaccination: The Fight against Smallpox: In 1721 Onesimus, an African man enslaved by Cotton Mather in Boston, introduced Mather to the technique of inoculation used in West Africa to protect against the devastating disease of smallpox. Mather campaigned for a program of smallpox inoculation in Boston, which first met with huge resistance but was eventually celebrated. Later, Edward Jenner's 1796 vaccine was promoted by doctors like Dr. John Van Surley DeGrasse, Boston's first Black physician, who records vaccinating many children in his account book despite lingering suspicion of the vaccine. What were some of the major turning points in the fight against smallpox and its eventual eradication? How do these discoveries represent turning points in medical history?
  • The Salem Witchcraft Trials: In 1692, when witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions roiled Salem, petitions flooded the Salem court and the colonial government. In 1692, 39 of Rebecca Nurse’s neighbors, both men and women, testified that they “never had Any cause or grounds to suspect her of Any such thing as she is now Acused of,” but she was found guilty and executed.  What role have the Salem Witchcraft Trials played in history and memory? What impact did they have on the practice of witchcraft trials, legal processes, and the rights of accused? 

The18th Century

Lithograph image of Boston Massacre, showing a battle between British soldiers and colonists with Crispus Attucks, a Black and Indigenous man, at the front and center.

  • The Coming of the American Revolution:  How were ideas of freedom and democracy turning points in political thought? How did these new ideas spark a revolution among colonists? How did different Indigenous nations and enslaved people view these ideas?
  • Elizabeth Freeman and the Legal End of Slavery:  Elizabeth Freeman sued for her freedom in 1781, arguing that under the Bill of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution, which reads "all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and inalienable rights," slavery was no longer legal. Freeman's case was an important part of the legal precedent for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. What legal strategies did Elizabeth Freeman use to challenge the institution of slavery in Massachusetts? How was her court case a turning point in the history of slavery and abolition in Massachusetts and beyond?
  • Debates on the Ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts: How did the Massachusetts Constitution represent a turning point in self-government? 
  • Petition of Prince Hall to the Massachusetts General Court:  In the 1770s and 1780s, groups of Massachusetts enslaved people and freemen petitioned the colonial government, claiming that freedom was a right belonging to all men and women. These petitioners included Prince Hall, a prominent Boston leader and activist and founder of the first Black Freemasonry Lodge. What arguments did Hall and his fellow petitioners make on behalf of freedom for all Black people? Were they successful? How did their petitions break new ground for later abolitionist efforts?  
  • Early Drafts of the US Constitution: In this early draft of the US Constitution, it begins “We the People of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts…” and lists all 13 colonies. In the final draft, the Constitution begins “We the People of the United States...” How does this shift in the Constitution represent a turning point in U.S. identity and government? What was the impact of the Constitution on U.S. and world history and government?

The 19th Century

A Black soldier dressed in a Civil War Union uniform, seated and posed facing the camera

  • Anthony Burns and The Fugitive Slave Act: Following his self-liberation from slavery, Burns escaped to Boston. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, Burns was jailed in the summer of 1854 with the intent to kidnap him back into slavery, raising a huge public outcry in Boston and beyond. How was Anthony Burns’ journey a turning point in the resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in Massachusetts? What was his impact on abolitionist movements and resistance to slavery? Learn more at the History Source.
  • Sarah Parker Remond Protests Segregated Seating at Boston Theater: Sarah Parker Remond was an internationally prominent anti-slavery lecturer, physician, and activist campaigner for abolition and women's suffrage. In 1853, Redmont filed assault charges after being violently removed from the Howard Athenaeum for refusing to sit in segregated seats. Her case was an early effort to overcome segregation laws in Boston. What role did Sarah Parker Remond's court case play in challenging racist laws in Massachusetts? How did she effect change through her activism in abolition and women's suffrage?
  • Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment: The 54th Regiment was the first military unit consisting of Black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. How does the 54th Regiment represent a turning point in both the Civil War and the battle for equal rights for Black soldiers? How was their battle for equal pay a turning point as well as their actions on the battlefield?
  • Invention of the Safety Bicycle: The introduction of the so-called "safety bicycle” in the 1890s revolutionized the industry. By 1890, about 150,000 Americans -- men, women, and children -- owned bicycles. By 1900, millions of Americans owned bicycles, with local groups like the Waltham Cycle Club contributed to the huge rise in popularity. How was the safety bicycle a turning point in transportation, culture, and sports? What opportunities did the bicycle open up for people of different ages, genders, and backgrounds? Learn more at the History Source.
  • Stop-Action Photography, 1888: This stop-action photograph of Benjamin Sewall Blake mid-jump was taken by his father, Francis Blake. In the mid-1880s, Blake designed a distinctive shutter that allowed him to take photographs with very short exposure times. How was stop-action photography a turning point in revolutionizing photojournalism, making world events much more immediate?

The 20th Century

A group of women posing wearing cowboy hats and uniforms labeled

  • The Wright Brothers launching the Wright glider, 1903: Wilbur and Orville Wright are credited with inventing the first motor-operated airplane. What was the short- and long-term impact of the invention of the airplane on international relations? On technological development and industry? On the environment? Learn more at the History Source.
  • Baseball's Boston Bloomer Girls: As baseball evolved into the sport we know today, men and women alike played the game as early as the 1850s. The Boston Bloomer Girls baseball team was one of many female teams that criss-crossed the nation from the 1890s into the 1930s playing baseball against men's teams. Did the Boston Bloomer Girls and other women's baseball teams represent a turning point in the history of women in sports? Why or why not? How did they impact the culture around gender and sports during and after their time?
  • Massachusetts Women and WWI: Women from Massachusetts played a wide range of roles during WWI. Some, like Nora Saltonstall, Edith Cavill, or Margaret Hall, served abroad in Europe as ambulance drivers, nurses, or canteen workers. Others did volunteer work on the home front like Clara Currier, or campaigned for peace like Rose Dabney FordIn what ways did women's participation in WWI efforts represent a turning point in gender roles and culture, opening new doors for women? In what ways did it NOT represent a turning point?
  • Nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll: These photographs from MA governor (later MA Senator) Leverett Saltonstall show testing of the nuclear atomic bomb during WWII. How was the atomic bomb a turning point in WWII history and beyond? How has the existence of the atomic bomb shaped world politics since its development? What was the impact on local communities of Bikini and other testing sites