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Prof. Gabrielle Foreman (left) confers with volunteer Marva King, as she reviews and approves records that other volunteers have transcribed.
social and civil rights activism of the 19th century, represented by
one of its most prominent and tireless advocates, met 21st century
technology at a Feb. 14 event celebrating the 200th birthday of
Frederick Douglass Day was marked by a global “transcribe-a-thon,” in
which some 1,600 participants at 70 locations in North
America and Europe helped to transfer historical records to a digital,
searchable database for preservation and for use by historians and the
“What an honor it is to join all of
you … to celebrate the life of Frederick Douglass and to pledge our
commitment to the work he left us to do,” said P. Gabrielle Foreman in
welcoming participants to the occasion at the University of Delaware,
one of three central hubs for this year’s event. “We honor not just
Frederick Douglass but the many movements for justice” with which he was
Foreman is Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor of
Africana studies and history at UD and faculty director and co-founder
of the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), a nationally recognized digital history project hosted at the University.
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In front of an image of Frederick Douglass, student dancers perform excerpts from the multidisciplinary "Women of Consequence" project in which they portray significant women in African American history.
At UD, where students, faculty, staff and community members gathered
in Morris Library, the event featured dance, poetry, song, readings and a
birthday cake in addition to the efforts of dozens of volunteers who
used laptops to transcribe records from mostly handwritten documents.
The festivities were live-streamed from UD and the two other hub
locations—Princeton University, where activities were led by UD alumnus
and CCP co-founder Jim Casey, and Howard University, where a team led by
the Smithsonian Institution took part.
Volunteer transcribers at the numerous sites worked to digitally preserve documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau,
the agency that Congress established after the Civil War to help
formerly enslaved people and others whose lives were dependent on the
economic system of slavery transition to freedom.
The transcribe-a-thon was held in collaboration with the National
Museum of African American History and Culture, which houses these
historically significant documents, and the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
A volunteer transcriber in Morris Library helps record in a digital format handwritten documents from the Freedmen's Bureau.
By the end of the international Frederick Douglass Day events, the
transcription center reported, 779 additional pages of records had been
transcribed, another 402 pages of transcriptions had been reviewed and
approved, and 600 new volunteers had registered to help with the
Those attending the UD event were
given a brief tutorial on the transcription process and then went to
work. Students involved with the CCP circulated throughout the room to
assist the volunteers.
Miata Smith, an undergraduate neuroscience student, said she
initially came to Douglass Day to see the dance performance by students
in the “Women of Consequence” project.
“But I wanted to know more about this project, too,” she said, as she
worked to decipher the handwriting in a letter and type it into the
digital record. “It’s fascinating to see these documents.”
For Marva King, a retired Environmental Protection Agency executive
who earned her master’s degree in public administration at UD in 1997
and a doctorate at George Mason University, the event was her first try
at working with the transcription process.
The celebration in Morris Library was topped off with a birthday cake, later cut and distributed to participants by Interim Provost Robin Morgan and College of Arts and Sciences Dean George Watson.
“I thought the project sounded
interesting,” she said, after learning about it from Foreman. “So many
records are lost, and so many African Americans have difficulty learning
anything about their ancestors, after the years of slavery and Jim
Crow, that preserving the records we have is really important.”
CCP has brought together undergraduate and graduate students from
across the University, along with faculty members, archivists, library
professionals, classroom teachers, community groups and churches. All
share an interest in preserving historical records, particularly those
that have often been overlooked.
Alison Robinson, a student in UD’s master’s degree program in
material culture studies, said she first learned about CCP in September
and “fell in love with it.”
“This particular project is trying to remind the world of how
important history is, and how relevant it is to our world today,” she
said. Working with documents that show the effect of historical events
and times on everyday individuals, she said, is especially compelling.
“With this project, you really hear
the voices directly—voices of African Americans and of people who
interacted with them,” she said of the Freedmen’s Bureau documents. “You
see the power of local-level history, and you see the personal impact.
And that’s exciting.”
The CCP is a collaborative, digital project that is a key part of
UD’s ongoing initiatives to build on its established strengths in the
public humanities, particularly African American public humanities, and
material culture studies.
The University of Delaware Library is a key partner in the interdisciplinary project.
The initiative resurrects buried digital history by finding,
digitizing, archiving and making publicly available the minutes and
other records from the numerous Colored Conventions that met across the
United States and Canada in the 19th century.
African American men and women, including such prominent leaders as
Douglass, gathered at these conventions to strategize about ways to
achieve political, social and legal justice.
The project has involved research, classroom experiences and
community engagement by both graduate and undergraduate students in such
fields of study as history, Africana studies and English.
The CCP has won numerous awards for its work. In October, the National Endowment for the Humanities
highlighted it as one of 50 projects selected for recognition in the
agency’s “NEH Essentials” list of important work it has supported in its
To Foreman, Frederick Douglass Day was a natural fit for CCP.
“One of the Colored Conventions Project’s central values is to adopt
and advance the community-building that the conventions themselves
modeled,” she said. “The records of people and movements that have been
dismissed and undervalued, and so lost and unarchived, are often only
recovered through collective, community-sourced commitment.”
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson