Preston loves African American history. An urban-Chicago elementary school even invited the history buff to speak to its students about his award-winning film Tap, which chronicles the dance's evolution from the time of slavery. Not bad for this suburban white kid.
There's whole lot of sagacity packed inside Preston Burger's 15-year-old frame. He is just one of nearly 700,000 students who participate annually in the National History Day contest. Papers are written, performances are given, and documentaries are produced explaining how fragments of history can cause a chain reaction through time. Each year has a different theme and the competition is fierce; students compete for cash and prizes, but most of all, it's for the glory. Only about 1,200 students reach the final rounds held in Washington DC. Participating students usually spend the entire year researching their projects.
Preston's forte has been the video medium. Armed with a video camera and an iMac (For the older generation: an iMac is a super-equipped computer with powers short of nuclear detonation), Preston makes his award-winning documentaries, which he submits to the contest.
He has produced three so far, all placing high in the contest. The films include the previously-mentioned Tap, and Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Technology of Ancient Egyptian Mummification, and his latest entry, From Punishment to Pardon: The Chicago Port Mutiny.
All of Preston's documentaries placed within the top three. In June, his film detailing the Chicago Port Mutiny garnered the second place award. "I couldn't believe I got to second place," he said, remarking about his tough competition.
"You would not believe what these kids produce," his mother, Susan Burger, interjected. "I could never choose. I don't know how they choose. They're all so good."
Preston's film retells the story of the Chicago Port Mutiny, which occurred during WWII, and led to the desegregation of America's armed forces. Peering through black-rimmed glasses, Preston details how the black regiment was on duty July 17, 1944 when a huge explosion ¬felt 30 miles away in San Francisco ¬ occurred after the men were loading ammunition and highly explosive materials.
The men were subjected to harsh treatment. A hike of a half mile was necessary to use the 'colored-only' bathrooms. They were given dangerous, mundane work. After the explosion, the survivors were ordered to resume loading. Most men buckled ¬ 208 of them ¬ but 50 refused because of the unsafe work conditions, despite being threatened with death. They were tried wrongly for mutiny, were demoted and were given sentences up to 15 years.
"Being an open case, Thurgood Marshall sat in on the trial and it was clear to him the case was based on racism and segregation," said Preston. "He helped organize a campaign to reduce their sentences."
As a result, the NAACP grew stronger, which helped usher in the Civil Rights Movement, and president Harry Truman signed an Executive Order abolishing segregation in the service.
Preston got his information from 68 sources, including documents from Navy and National Archives, and interviewing experts like Chicago Port Mutiny author Robert Allen, activist Sandra Evers-Manley, a distant cousin of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and Spencer Sikes of California, who was one of the men charged with mutiny.
A campaign to clear the men's record finally came to an end with a pardon from president Bill Clinton.
Preston's obsession with National History Day started in seventh grade, when participation was a requirement. His first documentary was on the roots of tap, and Preston, through his research, learned of the dance's western African roots, and how it was preserved by slaves. When the descendants of slaves migrated to northern cities like New York and Chicago, the dance step was taken along. It mingled with traditional Irish dances, thus spawning modern tap. He considers his From Punishment to Pardon: The Chicago Port Mutiny to be a continuation of the African American story.
Tap was followed by his eighth-grade project Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Technology of Ancient Egyptian Mummification. The documentary explores the methods the ancients used to preserve its royal members. Much of his information was provided by Long Island University Egyptologist Bob Brier, who pioneered modern understanding of the ancient mystery known as mummification.
His ideas come from news items and his own interests. A budding actor, singer, and dancer with a resumé to prove it, his passion for performance sparked many of his creative endeavors. Like Tap, his next National History Day entry will explore the cultural and social roots of performance, this time the subject is opera.
If the past is doomed to repeat itself, like the old cliché contends, Preston looks like a sure bet. And there isn't a fat lady singing in sight.