After Black abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895, many saw the importance of honoring his memory and activism. In Washington, D.C., a group led by Mary Church Terrell—an important African American activist, educator, and author—observed Douglass’s birthday every Feb. 14 as “Douglass Day.” The memorials on this day helped give rise to Black History Month, enriching the long tradition of African American rituals for remembering the past. This year, Trinity’s Humanities Collective celebrated the day by hosting a local Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon presented by The Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State and Zooniverse in partnership with organizations around the country. The local event allowed the Trinity and San Antonio community to collaborate with other schools and institutions across the country such as libraries, churches, and museums.
Participants gathered in the Coates Library to transcribe digitized records from the Colored Conventions, the nineteenth century’s longest campaign for Black civil rights. During the movement, tens of thousands of Black leaders organized state and national conventions to debate the larger struggle for Black civil rights, racial justice, and equality. Documents from the project range from letters and diaries, to certificates and postcards, to accounts of historic meetings. These records of Black activism illustrate the immense struggles and the profound courage of those who insisted on organizing and standing for what was rightly theirs.
English professor Claudia Stokes, Ph.D., who is the co-director of the Humanities Collective and teaches a course on American literature from the nation’s colonization and settlement to the late nineteenth century, attended the event and invited her students to come along. “For me, the event is important in part because it allows intellectual collaboration among students, faculty, staff, and community members, who get to work together to contribute to the archival materials of American history, Black history in particular,” she says.
One of Stokes’ students, English major and San Antonio native Aspen Harrison ’25, explained that she came to the event to preserve and celebrate Black history. “I think it’s important that these documents are transcribed and these names are remembered. Black history is American history. And it's important that we honor that,” Harrison says. In addition to learning more about Douglass on his birthday, Stokes’ class will be reading his biography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, later this semester.
Jasmine Janeé ’24, an urban studies major from Natchez, Mississippi, also attended the event after hearing about it from the Black Student Union and researching Douglass Day on her own. Janeé explained that transcribing records from the Colored Conventions Movement, a significant moment in Black history, resonated with her on a personal level.
“This is important to me personally because I know that when it comes to looking up my history, it’s harder to find,” Janeé says. “Finding out that these [documents] are full of causes that should definitely have been transcribed, it feels important to do this. I know coming up as a young person, I would be interested in learning about my history. But knowing it’s not as accessible is one of those disadvantages as to why you can’t learn it. So, being able to help do this for the coming generation, or later on in life to be able to go back and look at it, is worth the time.”
Stokes echoed Janeé's point about bringing attention to stories of Black communities that need to be told but have not historically received just attention. “This event allows our students and colleagues to see how the conventional history of the United States has so often deliberately excluded the histories and experiences of Black Americans and other marginalized communities,” she explains. “The work of history, we hope to show, is ongoing, and this event allows the Trinity community to contribute to the correction and expansion of the historical record.”
Classical studies professor Tim O’Sullivan, Ph.D., who supervised the event as co-director of the Humanities Collective, added that “it is very powerful to interact with primary historical sources, particularly those written by people whose lives and stories didn't receive the same attention as those of others. To have direct access to the thoughts and experiences of people living so long ago, through letters and other records, is an amazing experience.”
Kennice Leisk ’22, who works as the digital marketing and communications assistant for the Humanities Collective, also emphasized the power of studying and transcribing historical documents. A double major in English and Latin from San Antonio, Leisk is part of multiple humanities labs at Trinity where she has gained experience transcribing old texts, and she enjoyed doing something similar at this event. “I love the idea that I can contribute to uncovering and preserving Black history by my simple act of transcribing,” she says. The Colored Conventions Project also asks transcribers to note whether a document mentions any women involved in the conventions in order to underline their important roles in the movement. “As a woman,” Leisk says, “it is empowering to witness and participate in recovering the role of women throughout history.”
This event was supported and sponsored by the Student Diversity and Inclusion Office as well as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In addition, Student Involvement, Student Government Association, and MOVE Texas were also at the library during the event to provide information about voter registration and early voting efforts, combining the preservation and celebration of a history of civic engagement with a present-day call to action.