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Douglass Day 2021

page from Mary Church Terrell's diary

On Friday, February 12th, the Digital Scholarship Group, the Women Writers Project, and the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks hosted a Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon as part of a national event honoring the life and work of Frederick Douglass. Douglass Day celebrates radical love for Black history, and creates communal spaces for remembering and preserving Black history together, with opportunities for both critical reflection and for joy. One of the original inspirations for Black History Month, Douglass Day was revived in 2017 by the Colored Conventions Project. This is the fourth year that Northeastern scholars have collaborated with the CCP for their Douglass Day celebration.

This year, participants from both Northeastern and other universities transcribed materials from Mary Church Terrell Papers using the Library of Congress’s By the People platform. Mary Church Terrell was an African American activist who championed racial equality and women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century. A public speaker famed for her eloquence, Terrell was the first Black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, a founding president of the National Association for Colored Women, and a founder of the NAACP. Her work and activism helped sustain the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements of the twentieth century. Her papers are part of the “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” topical campaign, which brings together stories from women on the front lines of the largest reform movement in American history.  

After a brief introduction and welcome from Sarah Connell, assistant director of the Women Writers Project and the NULab, and Alicia Svenson, DSG coordinator, participants learned how to utilize the LOC’s By the People platform as part of a crowdsourced effort to transcribe, review, and tag digitized pages from the Library’s collections. To date, more than 426 thousand pages have been released for transcription across 21 different campaigns; over 270 thousand of these pages have completed transcriptions, and about 72 thousand await review. Once published in the Library of Congress’s digital collections, these transcriptions make the collection full-text searchable. The transcribed text can be viewed alongside the original image for readability and be used by adaptive technology like screen readers. The transcriptions will also be published as a bulk dataset for download and further research exploration.

Participants transcribed a variety of materials such as newspaper clippings, handwritten Valentines, notes, pamphlets, advertisements, and commencement proceedings. Though the event was held online, the virtual format of the Transcribe-a-thon allowed an unprecedented number of participants from other universities to transcribe and build community alongside Northeastern scholars. Participants shared their screens with one another to showcase interesting pages or ask for assistance with parsing uncertain lines of text, and the CCP’s Spotify playlist was shared to provide music for the celebration. Transcribing these pages allowed participants to explore the long struggle for equality through the diaries, letters, and speeches of the women who fought for the right to vote and changed political history 100 years ago. Though each of the pages is a small transcription task in and of itself, the Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon provided an opportunity for individual faculty, students, and researchers to contribute to the ongoing effort to make historical documents accessible and more broadly available.

This event connected with national Douglass Day proceedings, an annual celebration organized, in part, by The Colored Conventions Project, with local events happening across the country on February 12 and 14. Past and present supporters of Douglass Day include: the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State, the Colored Conventions Project, the Anna Julia Cooper Digital Project, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Princeton University Center for Digital Humanities, the PSU LIbraries, the PSU Center for Humanities and Information, the PSU College of Liberal Arts, the American Studies Association for a Community Partnership Grant, and Zooniverse.

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