Sullivan East senior sees history through National History Academy

Rick Wagner • Aug 23, 2019 at 3:30 PM

BLUFF CITY  — This summer Sullivan East High School senior John Martin Harbaugh got to see places and items he studied in Advanced Placement U.S. history his junior year first hand, from the nation’s capital to battlefields, from the blockades at historic Willliamsburg to the National Archives.

He also got to shake hands with late President George Washington, or at least a reasonable facsimile dressed in period clothing, and meet actor Robert Duval.

And it all started a day before the deadline to apply to the National History Academy in Middleburg, Virginia, operated by the not-for-profit Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. He called it a camp of sorts.


John Martin of the Bristol area said that his mother, teacher Michele Harbaugh, happened upon the history program on Facebook the day before the application deadline and that he and she decided he should apply, a process that included writing a one-page essay and a scholarship application for the $10,000 program. He got in the program and got nearly all the cost covered by a scholarship. His mother and father, John David “J.D.” Harbaugh, drove him to Middleburg in June, and his father returned to bring him back to Northeast Tennessee.

The five-week program, which started June 23 and ended July 26, accepted only 80 students from around the country and two territories to participate in the 2019 program. He said it was based at the Foxcroft School, during most of the year a girl’s boarding and day school and equestrian school, in northern Virginia.

Students from 10th, 11th and 12th grades learned about the foundations of American democracy and the responsibilities of citizenship. John Martin was only one of two students from the state of Tennessee accepted into the program this year, the other one being from East Tennessee near Knoxville. The program also had a college student teaching assistant from Nashville.


He said the most important thing he learned was the importance of connections since academy President and CEO Bill Sellers got the group into the National Archives after hours through a friend and got Duval to appear because Duval is a friend.

“The biggest thing I learned is being connected is important,” John Martin said, although he said learning “a thousand things about history” also was a big deal. He also said getting in-depth explanations was eye opening, including talking with the director of a Jamestown restoration project. He also studied five Harvard Business School cases and engaged in the parliamentary debates to build civic discourse.

“The debates were a big part of the camp,” John Martin said of a process in which students debate historical issues with the help of Harvard University Professor David Moss and contemporary issues, both through a program called Better Angels.

“In current politics, a lot of the debate is just yelling at each other,” he said. The group even debated ICE or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a white hot topic in national politics these days.


During the five weeks, students visited more than 30 historic sites, including Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, Charlottesville, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Antietam, Shenandoah National Park, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Oak Hill, multiple Smithsonian museums, the White House, the Capitol Building and a private after-hours tour of the National Archives. For two nights and three days, the students spent time in Williamsburg, but the rest of the ventures were day trips that often started with a 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. bus ride.

Near Williamsburg, John Martin was photographed with an actor portraying first President George Washington, and in the history area he took at turn at the stockades used for punishment in the 1700s.

The students met with more than 20 national leaders and had many special guest speakers including curators from the Smithsonian, a Harvard professor, a former FBI investigator, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, a specialist at the Richmond Federal Reserve and actor Robert Duvall, a friend of Sellers.

Four college tours were also a part of the Academy with trips to Washington and Lee University, the College of William and Mary, Dickenson College and the University of Virginia. His mother said the Academy was a tremendous opportunity to step out of the hills of Tennessee and into a diverse and unique experience.


John Martin said he hasn’t chosen a college or university yet but wants to major in computer science as an undergraduate and then get a law degree, eventually owning his own law firm that works for technology companies.

He runs cross country and track and is on the swim team at East. He also serves on the Student Council and in the Key Club, National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America.

He attends A2 Church in the Bristol area, which meets in different people’s homes. 

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