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The Kislak Center, located in the Van Pelt Library, is partnering with the Price Lab to host a hybrid event honoring Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14.

Credit: Derek Wong

The University held a hybrid event for Douglass Day on Feb. 14 to honor the life of Frederick Douglass, and the contributions of Black women throughout history.

Hosted by a collaboration between the Penn Libraries' Kislak Center and the Price Lab for digital humanities, the event featured a transcribe-a-thon — where participants converted images of historical materials such as letters and news releases into text — and aimed to be a teaching experience for Penn and the greater Philadelphia community.

Along with the transcribe-a-thon, the event included other activities like group songs, national broadcasts with live speakers, and a showcase of some of the entries into the second annual Douglass Day Bake Off

“The cool thing about the event is that you don’t have to transcribe for the entire three hours,” said the Kislak Center’s Curator for Civic Engagement Samantha Hill, who helped host the event.

Hill hopes that the holiday helped educate and engage a diverse audience. “It’s open to everyone,” she added. “Everyone is welcome.”

In recent years, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the University’s Douglass Day celebrations were held on a smaller scale virtually. With restrictions loosening on indoor social gatherings, the Kislak Center hosted the event with a hybrid setup this year. Their goal was to open up the event to the greater Philadelphia community and create a safe and comfortable environment.

“One part of [doing Douglass Day hybrid] is being able to reach out to people who can’t make it to Penn’s campus,” said Dr. Stewart Varner, the Managing Director of the Price Lab. Dr. Varner has helped organize Penn’s previous Douglass Day events. “This isn’t limited to people at just Penn.”

Despite the challenges involved in hosting the event during the pandemic, Dr. Varner believes that the work was necessary to make history more open to the public.

“[We] are finding, organizing, and archiving the materials so that people have access to them. Digitizing them makes them much more accessible for the average person,” Dr. Varner said.

This event was one of the many annual Douglass Day celebrations that take place nationwide.

In honor of Frederick Douglass' chosen birthday, the Black community traditionally uses the day to pay homage to Douglass and discuss the issues the community faces. The celebration gradually expanded from a single day to the entirety of February, evolving into the Black History Month observed in the United States today.

In 2017, Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman, now an endowed professor at Penn State, came up with the idea to revive the holiday while teaching a graduate class at the University of Delaware. 

Today, the day focuses on the “colored conventions” — a series of Black political conferences Douglass and other notable Black activists attended over four decades in the 1800s following the Civil War. Foreman’s Colored Conventions Project examines various historical records from these meetings.

“We want to expose not only the Penn community, but also our local communities to the availability of the Color Conventions Project, and to the impact that Douglass Day has had on the study of Black culture and Black history,” says Dr. Amanda Licastro, Emerging and Digital Literacy Designer for the University’s Library and one of the event’s co-hosts. 

The official Douglass Day website describes it as a “moment for creating Black history together”. By combining elements of a research project with a typical birthday celebration, the holiday aims to celebrate Fredrick Douglass’ birthday in a fun and meaningful way while creating new resources to learn about Black history.

“When the students open up these digital archives, and they start doing the work of finding names and hidden references to — particularly this year, we're looking for Black women — they are contributing to a greater understanding that women play an important role in the color conventions, and that they did play an important role in the history of Black activism in the United States,” says Dr. Licastro.

This year’s Douglass Day event acted as a pilot for future celebrations. The hosts said that they hope to see more people join the festivities as the community returns from COVID restrictions.