Freedmen’s Bureau Transcribe-a-Thon to Honor Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass did not know his birthday. Born in slavery in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland, he never found any documentation of his birth. Douglass fled north to freedom in 1838, hopping ferries, trains, and steamboats through Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania before reaching New York City. After this, he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14, Valentine’s Day, with 1818 as a presumed year of birth.

Douglass devoted his life to fighting for equal rights for all, defending not only blacks but women, immigrants, and Native Americans. With a keen skill for oration, he became one of the most famous black men in America by the time of the Civil War and met with Abraham Lincoln on the unfair treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army.  After the war, he worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and its organizations to help four million freed slaves transition into their new lives. 

On the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birthday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center, and Colored Conventions Project are hosting a transcribe-a-thon of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s records. This event is part of the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project, which has transcribed some two million digitized, handwritten documents. The project will be used to help people research their family history. It is the largest crowdsourced transcription project sponsored by the Smithsonian.

Events will be held in Washington, D.C. and Newark, Delaware. Online participation is encouraged for people who cannot attend the events in person, or participants may organize their own local events. Register with the Colored Conventions Project to participate.

Lucy Davis is the Digital Media Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. She studies public history at Rutgers University, Camden.