"My grandpa's great grandfather, Sgt. Maj. Eugene De Sparr, fought with General George Custer during the Indian Wars.
"On the day of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Sgt. Maj. De Sparr was sick and stayed behind, which kept him out of the massacre," Brontae Gomes excitedly told me as she pointed out her great-great-grandfather in a picture.
This 11th grade student was astonished to learn about her rich family history while interviewing her grandpa, Raymond Gomes, as part of her oral history project for her advanced placement history class.
Funded by the California Teachers Association, Merced High School's oral history project has enabled history teachers Joel Sebastian and Rich Sandoval to encourage and support young historians at Merced High School.
When teacher-librarian Sarah Morgan approached me about the possibility of exhibiting the students' work at the Courthouse Museum last year,
I was thrilled to be involved in the project.
Opening 5 p.m. Thursday, "Young Historians at Work" will showcase 27 oral history projects with photos and sound bites at this joint exhibit by Merced High School and the Courthouse Museum.
The exhibit is full of stories of heartfelt success and inspirational struggle arranged under four themes: "Serving the Country," "Building the Nation," "Starting a New Life" and "Making It in America."
As a member of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Livingston native Tsugio Sano participated in many campaigns in Europe during World War II. The 442nd unit suffered significant casualties while rescuing the 36th Texas Division from German forces in the Lost Battalion Campaign in Biffontaine, France, in October 1944.
The 442nd warriors, like Sano, were all Japanese-Americans. While they were serving their country, their families were wrongfully incarcerated in internment camps.
Later, when President Harry S. Truman praised their heroism, he said, "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice -- and you have won."
After the war, Sano returned home and began farming. Today, he lives on his farm in Le Grand and his story is told by his grandson, Tyler Sano.
While Sano was fighting for freedom abroad, others like Jim McDiarmid worked to build democracy at home. McDiarmid was born in Raeford, N.C.
During the civil rights movement, McDiarmid, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was a strong voice for voting rights for black Americans.
Immediately after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, "Jim went door to door to get blacks to register to vote for the next election in 1966," his interviewee Emma Paik-Tesch writes. McDiarmid is now a clinical psychology professor at UC Merced and a faculty psychologist at Mercy Medical Center Merced.
Alyssa Lawry chronicles her grandmother Connie Louise Gorham's struggle from being a single mother with six children to becoming a happily married, successful medical professional.
After high school, Gorham, like many women of her time, got married instead of going to college or pursuing a career. Her two failed marriages left her penniless and almost homeless.
With six children to care for, she finally realized that getting a career was the only path to financial independence. Determined to start a new life, Gorham moved to Merced from Mariposa, got two jobs and enrolled in the nursing program at Merced College.
She graduated from Merced College and received her nursing license in 1988. Gorham is now a nursing manager at the hospital and a grandmother of 20.
If it was hard for Connie Gorham to start a new life in her native country, it is even more difficult for immigrants like Lo Saechao to make it in America.
Saechao was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in the early 1980s. His parents had escaped from Laos after the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong, an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Laos, fought side by side with the CIA. When the United States lost the war to the communists, many Hmong like Saechao left their homes and sought political asylum in Thailand from 1975 to 1980.
From Thailand, Saechao's family immigrated to the United States and settled in Merced in 1985. Saechao did not speak much English when he first arrived; however, determination and hard work helped him excel in school.
After two years at Merced College, Saechao transferred to the University of California at Davis where he earned his teaching credential. Today, he is a teacher at Burbank Elementary School and a homeowner. His sister, Fey Saechao, is proud to share his American dream in her oral history project.
Other students who have shared their stories in the exhibit include Kali Avila, Kathryn Burghardt, Suleman Choudhry, Jeannie Horta, Tom Lantin, Tiffeny Moua, Zechariah Pyles, Sarah Ratzloff, Samantha Roberts, Joseph Romero, Jose Salas, Jose Sanchez, Sam Scheidt, Zian Shabbir, Janita Sidhu, Mark Taijeron, Levi Thomas, Cheenou Vang, Riki Walter, Kristin Watt, Natasha Yang and Angela Yi.
Please join us Thursday at the Courthouse Museum for the opening reception of the "Young Historians at Work" exhibit. The Merced High School jazz band will kick off the show at 5 p.m. and the young historians will present their oral history project at 6 p.m.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.