Students are all smiles at the Douglass Day event.
Douglass Day Celebrates Black History and Legacy
Trinity’s community transcribes Frederick Douglass’ letters to honor his contributions to U.S. history

Abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass is a prominent figure in African-American history. His legacy is celebrated nationwide as Douglass Day on February 14, which is the birthday he chose for himself.  

This year, Trinity University's Humanities Collective and the Student Diversity and Inclusion Office celebrated Douglass Day with a transcribe-a-thon focusing on the Frederick Douglass Papers: General Correspondence, 1841 to 1912, in the archives of the Library of Congress. This collection includes public letters, intimate family moments, and much more, revealing the many versions of Douglass across so many parts of his long and storied lifetime fighting for Black rights and citizenship.

This is Trinity’s fourth year participating in Douglass Day festivities. Participants gathered on the first floor of Coates Library and enjoyed cake and a livestream of various lectures, readings, and discussions of Black history while they transcribed Douglass’ primary letters. Co-director of the Humanities Collective and English professor Claudia Stokes, Ph.D., says, “This event is made possible through the Colored Conventions Project housed at Penn State, which creates the web presence and portals that make transcribing possible.”

English professor and Humanities Collective co-director Claudia Stokes, Ph.D., speaks with a participant at Douglass Day 2024.

The Douglass Day event gave Trinity’s community the unique opportunity to take part in preserving history. “I enjoy feeling like I’m making a difference in some way,” says Dean Zach ’24, an English major. “People assume computer programs can decode writing, but in reality, this is not the case because cursive writing is complicated. This is where human touch is needed.”

Attendees accessed the primary documents and transcribed them using either their laptops or the ones available at the event. Those transcribing looked at Douglass’ handwritten letters, translated them directly, and submitted their transcriptions to be reviewed.

Students and faculty used laptops to transcribe the letters of Frederick Douglass.

“First-hand experience with documents isn’t something you really get, so it’s interesting to look at the text itself instead of something typed up by another person,” says Reese Gilly ’27, a history major. “There is a tradition of discrediting Black writers, especially early on when the slave narrative was the predominant Black literature in America. It’s important to recognize the words of Douglass and that no one else wrote them.”

This event brought together not just students of all majors but also faculty and staff. Armando Saliba, senior director of Research and Sponsored Programs for Academic Affairs, speaks to the importance of celebrating Douglass Day. “Frederick Douglass helped articulate the suffering and experiences of enslaved people, and there is a reason why his legacy endures. It’s a testament to his importance and contribution to American history. I’m grateful that Dr. Stokes and others put this event together to expose students to writings that were controversial at the time but can be recognized now.”

English professor and Humanities Collective co-director Kathryn Vomero Santos, Ph.D., hopes students leave the Douglass Day event with a sense of curiosity about the past. “Important historical figures still have so many aspects of their life and work left uncovered, and this is an opportunity to remedy this. Black history is not passive, and we as Americans can ensure Black history continues to be preserved,” she says.

English professor and Humanities Collective co-director Kathryn Vomero Santos, Ph.D., is glad to see students helping to preserve Black history at Douglass Day. 

Beyond this event, Stokes specializes in 19th-century American literature and teaches Douglass’ writings to honor him as a leader in American literature and history. “There is a continuing need to conduct historical research on slavery’s history in the United States,” Stokes adds. “History is not settled. It’s an organic and ongoing process. African-American history is undervalued, unrecorded, and has gaps. There is still so much important work to do in preserving African-American history.”

Layal Khalil '27 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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