Courtney Murray, Penn State University
After transcribing Anna Julia Cooper’s papers for Douglass Day 2020, the Douglass Day team sat in a Zoom room in Fall 2020 wondering how we could possibly plan a celebration in a pandemic. Many of us had begun living with constant exhaustion, isolation, and anxiety. How could we organize a virtual event centered on Frederick Douglass’s chosen birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Black History month? How could we uphold our Douglass Day principles? In these principles, we seek to create Black communal spaces based on a love for Black history; make Black collections of Black women like Cooper accessible to broader communities; recenter how many of these collections, movements, and communities would not be what they were/are without the labor and organizing of Black women; and attempt to disrupt the erasure of Black people, especially Black women, at every level of the archive. But we seriously questioned if we could translate all that energy into a completely virtual event.
Our initial Zoom meetings consisted of the team separating into breakout rooms and sharing our fears but also our excitement at planning Douglass Day in partnership with the Library of Congress’s Mary Church Terrell Papers (“Transcribe Terrell”). In retrospect, the pandemic and the LOC partnership helped the team slow down and think through how a virtual space could challenge yet enhance the Douglass Day experience. Most important, the team renewed our commitment to Black women’s history and that commitment, despite any shortcomings, reverberated throughout all our committee work and the groundbreaking results of Transcribe Terrell.
We let the organizing efforts of Cooper and Terrell lead the way for our team as we navigated the unknown of virtual planning. Within their archives, we saw women organizing for the uplift and education of their communities, notwithstanding the challenges of war, disease, and discrimination. They fought for the recognition of their contributions and the validity of Black history. Douglass became one of the symbols of this effort. After establishing Douglass Day, Terrell proudly reflected, “I am prouder of having made it possible for future generations of Colored children to learn what a great member of their own race accomplished, in spite of insurmountable obstacles and to afford them an opportunity of honoring his memory in the public schools that of anything I have ever done.” She also insisted that, “I and nobody else established Douglass Day—I did so at a Board of Education meeting held January 12, 1897.” Women like Terrell and Cooper enmeshed Douglass’s memory into a communal pedagogy that spanned K-12 education, adult education, and women’s club organizing. Black women’s labor and activism created, sustained, and archived Douglass’s memory but also his symbolism for Black communities. These Black women and their broader networks taught us that Douglass Day is for the people and by the people, and their activism has significantly impacted our advocacy and partnerships. We could not allow the pandemic to stifle their legacies.
Douglass Day started as a hybrid event in 2017 at the University of Delaware, but moving the whole event online was not easy. Usually, we would all be in physical rooms together, eating cake, singing songs, and transcribing. Team members could help transcribers of all ages, sit next to them, and share the wonders of discovery. But in a pandemic, we had to rethink community engagement—specifically, an expansion of our communication and outreach efforts (newsletter, graphic designs, website, social media, lesson plans, transcription/FAQ videos, and day of programming). So, when Denise Burgher (Co-Director of Douglass Day and Co-Chair of the Curriculum Committee) proposed we start a newsletter for Transcribe Terrell, I jumped at the opportunity to assist with our outreach efforts.
Originally, the Douglass Day newsletter was an email intended to disseminate information about event locations, dates, times, activities, and other reminders, but I knew it could be more. I knew it could also be a tool to center the labor, stories, and lives of our team and the Black women we were transcribing. The first thing I learned, as I was familiarizing myself with MailChimp, was that I had to tell a story and to bring us all in as actors in that story. For Transcribe Terrell, we had three main newsletter issues on outreach, resources, and event preparation. The issues included images of Terrell and materials from her archives, event organizers (past and present), Douglass Day cakes, and more to demonstrate that although we were physically and temporally disconnected, we remained a community.
This year for Douglass Day 2022, I have expanded these efforts to include our graphics/flyers and social media engagement. Because we are partnering with the Colored Conventions Project to find Black women in the Colored Conventions, I have imbued all of the newsletters, flyers, and graphics with the ephemeral yet significant essence of these women. Though these women’s appearances were rarely documented in convention records, they were there as fully fleshed women who labored in so many ways to contribute to the conventions. I have seamlessly connected our newsletter and Twitter promotion schedules to ensure that whether our audience loves hashtags or email threads, we are all engaging with these women’s lives as one.
Although we were not able to fully regain the communal aura of an in-person Douglass Day, as a team, we were still able to champion Black women’s activism and intellectual labor through our participants’ voices, cakes, and archival discoveries. This communal celebration traversed academic, organizational, and communal boundaries to reach over 7,600 people internationally.