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Swarthmore Celebrates Frederick Douglass, Digital Access to Black History

students working on laptops

The College celebrated Douglass Day, a commemoration of Frederick Douglass’ chosen birthday, with a transcribe-a-thon and bake-off through the LibLab of McCabe Library on February 14. Amanda Licastro, Swarthmore’s new digital scholarship librarian, organized the event. It was co-sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.

The Colored Conventions Project leads an international effort each year in the spirit of increasing digital access to Black history. This year, the livestream (available on YouTube) went out to 7,000 participants in over 110 locations around the world.

The Swarthmore Libraries advertised the event as “a wonderful opportunity to get hands-on experience with a digital humanities project in a fun, stress-free environment.” Among the Swarthmore participants were English literature and education students.

Douglass Day began with introductions; a performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by Clayton Colmon, associate director of instructional design, Arts and Sciences Online Learning, UPenn;  and a discussion centered not only on Douglass, but also Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an activist, educator, and lawyer. 

The Colored Convention Project then offered a tutorial for transcribing the historical papers of Shadd Cary through the Zooniverse portal. Through the weekend, the transcriptions were 16% completed, with 703 volunteers, 29,238 classifications, and 18,264 subjects. (To help transcribe, visit

“I don’t think I need to say to those who are tuning in as well that we’re in a moment where there are, yet again, efforts to suppress the teaching of African American history,” said Clarence Lang, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of African American studies at Penn State, in a livestreamed presentation. “[I ask] that you consider your work today as a modest, concrete effort toward a much larger goal of preserving the histories of people of African descent in the U.S. and indeed, abroad.”

Recently, Douglass Day has begun memorializing Black women's vital contributions to history, activism, and abolitionism. This year, it focused on Shadd Cary, described by Douglass as a "pioneer among colored women.” 

"Shadd Cary would go on to become the first Black woman to edit a newspaper in North America,” said Kristin Moriah, assistant professor of English at Queen’s University. “Through her newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, she fostered a critical forum for intellectual and political exchange. She joined the first class of law students at Howard University in 1860, becoming the first African American woman to gain admission to law school. She graduated at the age of 60 in 1883, becoming only the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree. She was the first Black woman to vote in a national election in the United States. She kept writing, publishing, and advocating for racial and gender equality. She was a force to be reckoned with."  

By focusing on Shadd Cary, the event drew overdue attention to “this important figure in American history,” notes Licastro.

“By making the papers of Shadd Cary available digitally, and by foregrounding the impact of her life's work, we are contributing to a growing body of scholarship and educational resources to raise awareness about the role of Black women in the abolitionist movement,” she adds.

"Happy Birthday" was sung in Frederick Douglass' honor before Hassan El-Amin, an adjunct professor of theater at the University of Delaware, performed a dramatic reading of the speech "Why Hold a Colored Convention?"

After participants spent time transcribing Shadd Cary’s historical papers, a panel of historians and her descendants discussed her achievements, history, and legacy. 

The event ended with reflections, social media highlights, and bake-off prizes. Happy Valley Elementary in Bellingham, Wash., landed first place in the bake-off competition, and the laser-cut sugar cookies with Shadd Cary’s image from the Swarthmore MakerSpace received an honorable mention. Swarthmore Libraries also served up custom cupcakes from a local Black-owned bakery, Milk and Sugar.  


The laser-cut sugar cookies with Shadd Cary’s image from the Swarthmore MakerSpace received an honorable mention in the bake-off contest.

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