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Warriors transcribe Black history at Douglass Day

Published on February 22, 2024

Warriors transcribe Black history at Douglass Day

A student transcribes a historical document.

History Professor Thomas Balcerski and a student work on transcriptions.

Emily Todd, dean of arts and sciences, works with a student on a transcription.

Eastern's Douglass Day transcription event was part of a national program.

This year’s Douglass Day Transcribe-a-Thon at Eastern Connecticut State University gave students, faculty and staff the opportunity to celebrate Black History month by transcribing historical documents. The event, named in honor of 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was held on Feb. 14 to celebrate the anniversary of his birthday.

Douglass Day transcribe-a-thons are held at universities all over the country, and this was Eastern’s second year to participate. According to Dean of Arts and Sciences Emily Todd, Eastern was one of many universities featured on a Douglass Day Instagram story. “I’m so excited that Eastern is in the lineup,” she said. “It’s great to see that so many are participating.”

In a livestream shown during the event, Douglass Day’s director and founder Jim Casey stated that this year was the most widely attended, with more than 8,500 participants nationwide. At Eastern, a quintet of students sang an acapella rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem, for participants.

Students and faculty immersed themselves in the writings of Frederick Douglass and the letters of the people who wrote to him. Transcriptions were done via the website “By the People,” a scholarly database sponsored by The Library of Congress. Transcribing was also intellectually stimulating for many, as deciphering historical documents proved to be a fun challenge.

“Even though I work in the University archives, I’d never really done transcripts before I came to Eastern,” said history student Emma Schafer. “I think it’s great that everyone is being given an opportunity to take part in something like this.”

Schafer was transcribing alongside history Professor Thomas Balcerski, who also serves as director for the Center of Connecticut Studies. He explained that the analytical work involved in the transcribe-a-thon is like the work he, Schafer, and other history scholars conduct at the center.

“The first prerequisite to working there is being able to read the materials; if you can’t read the original manuscript materials, there’s not much you can do.” said Balcerski, citing the difficulty that many were having interpreting some of the papers. “At any given day, we’ll ask Emma to go through the primary sources, identify what it is, get the nature of it, and then classify it. It’s a very hands-on experience.”

Also in attendance was alumnus Frederick Douglass Knowles ‘97, who in addition to transcribing works conducted genealogical on his family history. “It’s great to come back and take an opportunity like this to come here and do research,” he said. “That’s how we grow.”

Written by Elisabeth Craig