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Reflecting on the Mary Church Terrell transcribe-a-thon with the Douglass Day team

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In today’s post, By the People community manager Lauren Algee interviews members of the Douglass Day team about their February 2021 transcribe-a-thon for the Mary Church Terrell Papers. Launched in 2018, By the People is a volunteer engagement and collection enhancement program at the Library of Congress that invites the public to explore and transcribe Library of Congress digital collections. When transcriptions are completed by volunteers, they are integrated back into the Library’s online catalog, where they become fully searchable and readable by accessibility technologies.

Every February 14 since 2017, an independent group of organizers have revived the historic celebration of Douglass Day as a day of service to Black (digital) history. Volunteers at locations around the world come together to honor the legacy of Frederick Douglass as they help transcribe and learn about an online collection of Black history and culture.

Douglass Day 2021 took place February 12-14, 2021 as the first ever entirely virtual celebration. The program focused on transcribing the final section of the By the People campaign for the Mary Church Terrell Papers, “A Life Illuminated”. These 4,500 pages from the Miscellaneous series of the Terrell Papers include a variety of printed materials that document all phases of the educator and activist’s public activities and provide glimpses of her private life.

Douglass Day 2021 brought a record number of new registered volunteers to By the People. The transcribe-a-thon on February 12 also broke our former record of transcriptions worked on in a single day: nearly 7,000 pages on saw activity and by the end of the weekend-long event 1,400 Terrell pages had been completed. Transcription of all of the Terrell Papers, nearly 25,000 pages, was finished on August 13, 2021.

I recently interviewed our Douglass Day collaborators Denise Burgher, Jim Casey, Courtney Murray, and Justin Smith to learn more about their experience organizing Douglass Day 2021.

Mary Church Terrell actually founded Douglass Day! How does the modern Douglass Day relate to what she started?

Jim Casey, assistant professor of African American Studies, History, and English at The Pennsylvania State University: Being able to celebrate Douglass Day 2021 with the Mary Church Terrell campaign was a real delight because of the historical connections. When Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895, Mary Church Terrell was active as a leader in the schools of Washington, D.C. In her work on the school board, she pushed for schools to celebrate Douglass’s birthday on February 14th. She saw it as a moment for historical reflection and conversation. Those celebrations quickly expanded, and helped later to inspire Black History Month. (And it explains why Black History Month takes place in February.)

Denise Burgher, PhD candidate in English and Colored Conventions Project/AAPHI Fellow, University of Delaware: It was truly remarkable to celebrate Mary Church Terrell on Douglass Day 2021. We planned a whole program to draw on Terrell’s original vision for Douglass Day. We broadcast the program live on YouTube. (See our broadcasts from February 12-14, 2021). We invited some of Terrell’s direct descendants. We also honored her legacy by inviting leaders from organizations that Terrell founded or shaped, such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Deltas Inc. and the AKA Inc. And what a thrill to hear Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton speak about the life of Mary Church Terrell. All of the speakers helped to explain why transcribing these papers was so important. We also sang happy birthday to Douglass and held a cake decorating contest (browse the amazing entries on our Twitter hashtag, #DouglassDay).

What did it mean to you to work on the Terrell Papers for this year’s transcription project?

Justin Smith, PhD candidate in English and African American Studies and Center for Black Digital Research Scholar, The Pennsylvania State University: It has been exciting working on Douglass Day to bring this history to a wider audience. Mary Church Terrell was a major activist for gender equality and racial justice. Yet, when I was in school we learned absolutely nothing about her. The same is true for Anna Julia Cooper, whom we learned about last year. Douglass Day gives me an opportunity to learn about these figures in a community of people who are all eager to learn about these too little-known histories.

DB: Working on Terrell’s papers, reading her words, and thinking about her ideas is a reminder of the ways her work anticipated many of today’s activists around gender and racial equality. These are enduring issues. Our transcribe-a-thon helped us learn about Terrell’s ideas and political activism. This is both inspiring and depressing as it echoes the relevance of the maxim, the changing same, even as our work amplifies the need to practice Sankofa.

Courtney Murray, PhD student in English and Center for Black Digital Research Scholar, The Pennsylvania State University: To be a part of a force like this has been a life changing experience because I work with others who hope that this program can help change how people interact with Black women’s history and ideas. There are a lot of Black women earning recognition for their achievements today, but we know they are part of a much longer history. It has been wonderful to highlight this long history through the work of Black women such as Mary Church Terrell (or Anna Julia Cooper in 2020).

Douglass Day usually includes in-person celebrations and transcribe-a-thons. How was the transition to a totally virtual community event?

JC: It was a challenge! Every year we hope that Douglass Day is like going to a fun birthday party. That felt extra important during the pandemic, so we spent months and months getting ready.

CM: For a virtual Douglass Day, we had to rethink how we connect with our audience. We are always dedicated to ethical and respectful access, which inspired some parts of our virtual event and public engagement. We started much earlier on social media. As the managing editor of the newsletter, I worked with others to expand our newsletter to provide important reminders and resources to our audience. We found fun ways to continue old traditions, like celebrating Douglass’s birthday with cakes by starting the Great Douglass Day Bake-off. It was really fun to see so many people post their cakes on Twitter or Instagram!

JS: We also decided to make videos to teach people how to transcribe. We made similar videos last year, but they felt even more vital this year. As Co-chair of the Crowdsourcing Committee, it was my responsibility to lead this team effort and try to think about what transcribers might need to know and what we could leave out. We were pleased with the videos. They’re on our YouTube channel’s Douglass Day 2021 playlist. We will definitely carry some of that forward. All-in-all I think the transition worked pretty well. We really enjoyed seeing people on Twitter mentioning the Douglass Day account and using #DouglassDay as they engaged with the Terrell documents and their Douglass Day birthday cakes. I think that’s a testament to people’s excitement for Douglass Day.

DB: We missed being together in person. By that point it was partly easier because everyone had become more comfortable with things like Zoom. But it also brought challenges. We had to refocus on creating online spaces for thousands of people from all walks of life. The online transition was intense! We had a long program of speakers and performers. We pre-recorded almost all of the footage. It took a large amount of work over the months and weeks to conduct the interviews via Zoom and then edit them into short videos.

What people and groups come together to make Douglass Day happen?

CM: Our committees and audiences are diverse. Our team ranges from professors, librarians, graduate and undergraduate students to volunteers across a number of centers, communities, and campuses. (See our past & present team on our website’s About page.) I am a part of the social media and outreach committees (along with Jim Casey, Rick Daily, Victoria Francois, datejie cheko green, Elena M’Bouroukounda, and others). We manage social media platforms and the newsletter to relay information to the public. This past Douglass Day, we had over 7,000 attendees worldwide, including K-12 teachers and their students, professors, librarians, local organizers, graduate students, groups, sororities, and individual participants.

JS: There’s also a lot of people that come together internally. Our center creates a great environment to bring people into a community to work on these projects. Everyone has a genuine interest in the work, even as we all have different specialties. We all work on different things throughout the year in the leadup to DD. In the end, everything comes together.

DB: Every Douglass Day brings together a very broad but intentional range of people. We carefully plan partnerships that align with our core principles. A lot of our community partnerships grow behind the scenes. That work requires a lot of old-fashioned organizing: networking, calling, researching, writing, and developing relationships. This year we had Terrell descendants, academics, librarians, archivists, politicians, activists, professors, students, teachers and enthusiasts join us in significant capacities for Douglass Day and it was wonderful!

JC: We are hugely indebted to the people who organize Douglass Day events with their schools and communities across North America and Europe. This year, we had nearly 120 different satellite events. Someone from every one of those groups stepped up to host an event. We know how much work that takes. We try each year to compile a comprehensive set of resources into what we call an “Organizer’s Kit.” Especially for 2021 we felt it was really important to provide as many turnkey resources as possible. We expand our kit constantly, with things like guides for local outreach, lesson plans, designs for stickers, posters, and lots more. One of our most important jobs is to make it as easy as can be for our fellow organizers.

Any plans or hopes for Douglass Day 2022 you can reveal?

JC: We’re already hard at work! Next February, we are going to partner with the Colored Conventions Project to transcribe the records from civil rights meetings held by African Americans during the 1800s long before the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement. The conventions movement occurred from 1830-1900 and spread all over North America. We have a lot to transcribe and explore!

CM: I am looking forward to expanding our newsletter to connect with more of our communities and participants. Please sign up on our website to get those updates – and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @DouglassDayorg!

JS: We hope conditions will be safe enough to hold the event in person. We have lots of ideas and hope to make it easier for everyone to engage with the transcriptions.

DB: Come and join us!

Comments (2)

  1. Hello friends. I serve as Director of the Center for African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians at California State University Dominguez Hills. Among other things, we collect the music of African-American composers who have a significant connection to Southern California. I am intrigued by your transcribe-a-thon project for the papers/works of Mary Church Terrell. I’d like to know how it works as it may serve as a model for some of what we are doing. Is there someone involved in this program who would be willing to have a telephone conversation with me about this so I can get more information? I would be grateful. Thank you. Charles Dickerson

    • Hello Charles! If you could send us an email directly to [email protected], we’d be happy to help. Thanks for reaching out!

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