Frederick Douglass Day: Transcribing History

By Lisa Lamson

After an hour of transcribing for the “Frederick Douglass Day: Transcribe-a-thon,” a student approached me and said that, although she had completed her mandatory Screenshot_20180213-223738hour of transcription, she wanted to continue working on a series of letters written by and about a single family; she wanted to know how their story ended. My warning that “you might not find the ending you want,” fell on deaf ears – she had begun to transcribe documents and she was going to continue until she was satisfied.

This student’s excitement regarding the act of transcribing was one of many responses I received during Marquette’s “Frederick Douglass Day: Transcribe-a-thon.” She was there because Dr. Rob Smith’s African American History class had been assigned to do an hour of transcription, but the mandatory assignment had also parked her curiosity. I coordinated Marquette’s “Frederick Douglass Day: Transcribe-a-thon” through the Ott Memorial Writing Center on Wednesday, February 14th. This was part of a national event celebrating the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass, one of the most well-known anti-slavery and black equality advocates in the nineteenth century. The Transcribe-a-thon was nationally sponsored by the University of Delaware’s Colored Conventions Project, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Transcription Center, to celebrate Douglass’s 200th birthday. I was tapped for this event for many reasons – I am a40030 nineteenth century historian whose work focuses on girls of color in Maryland (where Frederick Douglass was born) and I am a graduate writing tutor at the Writing Center. I also passionately believe in making history and the work historians do accessible to everyone, inside and outside of the academy. The Transcribe-a-thon allowed me to combine these elements of my work at Marquette and, in the Jesuit tradition, service the greater community. On the heels of Service Week and in the middle of Black History Month, I could not pass on this great opportunity to show value in the work that historians do and transcribe documents that share the rich histories found in the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

After Douglass’s death in 1895, black communities established Douglass Day to celebrate his life. Douglass Day was one of the inspirations for Black History Month. Last year, in 2017, archivists at the University of Delaware revived Douglass Day as an occasion to encourage the transcription of the approximately two million image files of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

For several years after the Civil War, the Bureau aided formerly enslaved individuals during their transition to freedom and eventual citizenship. The Freedmen’s Bureau officers created one of the richest documentary records of African American individuals living in the fifteen Southern and border states and in Washington D.C. The records include letters, labor contracts, lists of food rations, indentureship and apprenticeship contracts, and marriage and hospital registers from throughout the South.

Among the many services the Bureau provided for the newly freed enslaved people and African Americans included securing food, clothing, legal representation, education, helped legalize formally enslaved individual’s marriages, and assisted 40011African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, bounties, and pensions. One of the goals of the Freedman’s bureau was to assist many of the newly freed peoples who wanted to find their families that had been separated through enslavement. The documents transcribed during the Transcript-a-thon provided a window into many different stories and narratives. To celebrate Black History Month and the spirit of Frederick Douglass, the Colored Conventions Project decided to honor the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau in assisting African Americans and formerly enslaved people’s efforts to find their families.

The “Transcript-a-thon” was also intended to “help African Americans discover their ancestors and help historians better understand the impact of freedom and unfreedom in the years following the Civil War” by allowing anyone with an internet connection access to these documents. Digitizing continues the efforts of the ancestors of these newly freed people to find their families.

At Marquette, students– both undergraduate and graduate – and Writing Center and library staff gathered in Raynor Library 227 for four hours (though many students wandered in and out as class schedules permitted) to do some of the practical work of being a historian. They scrolled through images of documents and typed what they read (their transcriptions will later be reviewed by members of the Smithsonian transcription team). My job was to help students work through the lack of standardized spelling and punctuation, to provide a second opinion on words that they were unsure about, and generally celebrate their successes as individuals worked through a phrase, a sentence, and a document.

Through the sponsorship of the Ott Memorial Writing Center, the Center for the Advancement of the Humanities, the History Department, Dr. Rob Smith’s African American History class, and many other campus organizations we were able to celebrate with cake, cupcakes, and other assorted snacks. In fact, the cake was one of the things I insisted upon as Dr. Rebecca Nowacek, the director of the Ott Writing 40006Center, and I planned the event. It wouldn’t be a birthday party without birthday cake. As people transcribed, we listened to a special Frederick Douglass-inspired Spotify list that spanned the decades and included songs like “Free” by Deniece Williams, “Living for the City,” by Stevie Wonder, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, “Possibility (2nd Movement)” by the Roots, and “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown.

Often, a discussion emerged about what people were finding in their documents, as people shared their struggles and their triumphs as they worked through their transcriptions. One student found a mistake in several of the documents she transcribed, where “Surg” was often transcribed as “Furg, Ferg, or Farg,” and many notes suggested that the previous transcribers were not sure what the official title of the letter writer was. Paging through the image files, she found a typed version of one of the previous letters that contained the individual’s name and title in question, and, after discussion with other transcribers to ensure she was correct, went back through the previous transcriptions and corrected some of them. During her conversations with other students, several noted similar language or abbreviations in their own document, and this prompted several of them to look up guides into nineteenth-century abbreviations to help with their understanding of the documents. The collaboration enriched the experience. As these stories show, the study of history is much more dynamic and alive than books would suggest.

This event and project is not just limited to one day throughout the year. The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project is one of the largest crowdsourcing initiatives ever sponsored by the Smithsonian and is ongoing. The website—–contains all of the information you need to begin your own transcription and to be captivated by the stories these documents hold. Though Douglass Day is over, the transcription goes on.

Lisa Lamson is a PhD candidate in history at Marquette University.

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