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Eastern hosts Douglass Day 'Transcribe-a-Thon'

Published on February 16, 2023

Eastern hosts Douglass Day 'Transcribe-a-Thon'

Most people are likely to recognize Feb. 14 as Valentine’s Day. However, there is another occasion to be celebrated on this date: the birth of civil rights and anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass. This year Eastern Connecticut State University joined other colleges and universities across the nation in a ‘transcribe-a-thon’ on Douglass Day.

Students, faculty and staff transcribed the papers of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a Canadian American journalist, anti-slavery activist and Civil War recruiter who was one of the first Black women to attend law school.

Amanda Irwin, administrative assistant in the Office of the Provost, has taken great interest in the event. “Prior to this event, I had never heard of Mary Ann Shadd Cary,” she said.

Shadd Cary founded the Provincial Freeman newspaper in Canada in 1853 to help acclimate the approximately 40,000 free Blacks in the Toronto-west regions to life in Canada. Her newspaper also spread anti-slavery sentiment and news of the abolitionist movements in North America.

Shadd Cary was also the first Black female publisher in North America. Because popular sentiment was against women in publishing, she was forced to quit the paper she founded. She then moved to the United States and helped recruit soldiers to the Union Army before becoming one of the first Black women to graduate from Howard University with a law degree.

Later, Shadd Cary was a suffragist who worked with Susan B. Anthony. She taught and lived in Washington, D.C., before her death in 1893. “The life of Mary Ann Shadd Cary was nothing short of remarkable, and the transcription of her works will add to the canon illuminating African American history in the trenches of the abolitionist movement,” said Irwin.

Students transcribe Mary Ann Shadd Cary's documents.

“We’ll be helping to make her papers accessible to future scholars,” said Joshua Sumrell, coordinator of the Intercultural Center at Eastern.

Sumrell and Irwin recently attended a virtual Douglass Day training seminar at Penn State. “Throughout the training, we were able to learn about the mission and vision of the event, explore what works for other organizations, and be able to ask questions and gain further knowledge to make our Douglass Day be the best one it can be,” said Sumrell.

At the event, students and faculty members focused intently on the documents they transcribed, as they were written in Shadd Cary’s cursive handwriting.

“It starts off really difficult, but once you get a feel for her handwriting in particular, it gets a lot easier,” said Liz Bartoshevich, a senior history major.

Bartoshevich found out about the event through her work in Eastern’s Office of Arts and Sciences. She put up posters and made handouts advertising the event. She was also interested in participating because, “I love history, so it was a no-brainer,” she said.

Allison Speicher, associate professor of English, participated in the transcribe-a-thon with several of her students. Speicher appreciated the chance to “make more accessible the thoughts and words of an important Black activist.”

One of her classes just read Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” the impact of which was strong on many of her students, who aspire to be elementary educators. “Reading how a five-year-old was treated in slavery was really eye-opening,” said Speicher.

Emily Todd, dean of Arts and Sciences, enjoyed watching the collaborative effort between her office and the Intercultural Center. “This is the first year that we’ve done this at Eastern,” said Todd, who was inspired by a Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon at her former institution.

Douglass Day
A snapshot of the turnout at Eastern's Douglass Day event.

“I’m thrilled with the turnout,” Todd continued. “It’s a great way to participate in scholarship and contribute to history.”

Douglass Day is an annual program described by organizers as a “collective day of love and action for Black history.” Eastern’s participation in the national event was co-sponsored by the Intercultural Center, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Intercultural Center and the J. Eugene Smith Library.

“I would love to continue to grow this event by working more closely with student organizations Black Student Union, NAACP, and any group that wants to honor Black history,” said Sumrell.

Around 7,000 people were expected to take part nationwide, transcribing 15,000-16,000 documents from the Provincial Freeman newspaper as well as 1,100 pages of Shadd Cary’s documents. Worldwide, 124 groups were expected to participate.

Written by Noel Teter