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Engraved portrait bust of Frederick Douglass, three-quarter view, hands folded.
A portrait of Frederick Douglass that served as the frontispiece for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Show Frederick Douglass some love: Transcribe his letters for Douglass Day on February 14

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This guest post is by Lauren Algee, a senior digital collections specialist in the Digital Services Directorate.

February 14 is Valentine’s Day, but there’s another reason to love the day — Frederick Douglass celebrated his birthday on that date, now observed annually as Douglass Day. This year, the Library of Congress volunteer transcription program By the People, in collaboration with the Center for Black Digital History at Pennsylvania State University, invites you to join a Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon focused on letters from the Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress. By the People volunteer transcriptions enable keyword search in Library of Congress collections, enhance readability and accessibility, and turn historical documents into data that can be used for digital humanities research.

The first Douglass Day was commemorated in 1897, just two years after Frederick Douglass’s death, by the District of Columbia Schools at the urging of board member Mary Church Terrell (whose papers are also in the Library’s Manuscript Division). Terrell later wrote: “I am prouder of having made it possible for future generations of Colored children to learn what a great member of their own race accomplished, in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles and to afford them an opportunity of honoring his memory in the public schools that of anything I have ever done.”

Excerpt of typed letter by Mary Church Terrell.
Mary Church Terrell, letter to the editor of The Star, n.d. Box 33, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In recent years Terrell’s holiday has been revived in a new form. Every February 14 since 2017, Douglass Day organizers (now headquartered at Penn State) have run public service projects inviting contributions to Black digital history. Volunteers around the world come together to transcribe and learn about an online collection of Black history as a way to honor the legacy of Frederick Douglass. In 2021, Douglass Day participants transcribed the Library’s Mary Church Terrell Papers. This event broke the By the People record for transcriptions worked on in a single day—nearly 7,000 pages on crowd.loc.gov saw activity—and by the end of the weekend-long event, 1,400 Terrell pages had been completed.

Excerpt of handwritten letter by Ida B. Wells.
Letter from Ida B. Wells to Frederick Douglass, April 6, 1894. She writes, “I still love you as the greatest man our race has yet produced and because of what you have suffered and endured for the race’s sake.” Box 10, Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress collection of Frederick Douglass Papers relates chiefly to his life during and after the Civil War, as most of his earlier personal papers were destroyed in an 1872 fire. This year the Douglass Day project will invite participants to transcribe the General Correspondence series of the papers. This series offers transcribers the opportunity to delve into Douglass’s personal and public life. As with the correspondence in most collections of personal papers, the General Correspondence series consists primarily of letters written to him, but some drafts and copies of his outgoing mail are also included. Douglass received letters from notable abolitionists, reformers, and activists, such as Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, and William Lloyd Garrison.

The papers also contain correspondence related to Douglass’s work as a writer, editor, orator, public servant in various appointed positions after the Civil War, and commissioner of the Haitian Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The private side of Douglass’s life is illustrated by his correspondence with family and personal friends. By transcribing his correspondence, volunteers will learn firsthand about the many facets of Douglass’s life, while aiding future researchers.

By the People will launch the Douglass transcription campaign at crowd.loc.gov on the morning of February 14, 2024. On that date, Douglass Day organizers at the Center for Black Digital History invite you to organize a local Douglass transcription party or join individually to celebrate Douglass’s life and contribute to his legacy. The festivities of the day will include a streaming program from 12 noon to 3 pm EST, a virtual birthday cake bakeoff, and updates on participant findings and accomplishments throughout the day. Volunteers will continue to transcribe any pages not finished on February 14 on the By the People website until the entire series is completed.

Visit https://douglassday.org to register for Douglass Day 2024, learn more about Douglass Day festivities, view how-to videos, explore teaching resources, and see a guide to organizing your own Douglass Day event. We hope you’ll join us!

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