Celebrating Frederick Douglass with Crowdsourced Transcriptions

A flier advertising the Transcribe-a-thon, which includes a photo of Frederick Douglass

On February 14, 2018, the world celebrated Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday. Douglass, the famed Black social reformer, abolitionist, writer and statesman, did not know the date of his birth, and chose the date of Februar


y 14, 1818 to celebrate his birthday. This year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, Colored Conventions, the Smithsonian Transcription Center, and the National Museum of African American History & Culture partnered together to host a Transcribe-a-thon of the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers in Douglass’ honor.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Papers consist of 2 million digitized papers through a partnership between the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is the largest crowdsourcing initiative ever hosted by the Smithsonian. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped solve the everyday problems of formerly enslaved individuals, from obtaining clothing and food to helping find lost family members. The Bureau operated from 1865-1872 and closed due to opposition from Congress and President Andrew Johnson.

The Transcribe-a-thon was held on February 14th from 12-3 PM EST. According to the Smithsonian Transcription Center, over 779 pages of the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers were transcribed during this time, 402 pages were reviewed and approved, and 600 new volunteers registered for the project. Over sixty institutions hosted Transcribe-a-thon locations, many of which bought birthday cakes in Douglass’ honor from African American-owned bakeries in their area. Meanwhile, Colored Conventions livestreamed participants during the event.If you’re interested in seeing more from Douglass Day 2018, check out the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s Twitter Moment.

The Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon was a fantastic example of people coming together and doing fantastic digital humanities work together, and for a great cause. While crowdsourced transcription projects are not new, the enthusiasm for Douglass Day is certainly unique and infectious, and we’re so excited to see where this project goes in the future and to get involved ourselves!