Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass

On February 14, the day the once-enslaved reformer, orator, and statesman Frederick Douglass chose to mark his birthday, thousands of people from across the globe will livestream Douglass Day, a global transcribe-a-thon hosted by Penn State’s Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, to honor Douglass’s legacy and celebrate Black History.

conceptual illustration of early Black organizers by Stuart Bradford


Penn State’s Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, co-directed by founders and liberal arts professors P. Gabrielle Foreman—winner of a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship—and Shirley Moody-Turner, hosts three major projects: the award-winning Colored Conventions Project, Douglass Day, and the early Black Women’s Organizing Archive. This year Douglass Day, which is co-directed by Penn State professor Jim Casey and Center leader Denise Burgher, celebrates Mary Ann Shadd Cary—a path-breaking Black woman newspaper editor, activist, and barrier-breaker in the law—on the 200th anniversary of her birth.


Q: Gabrielle and Jim, you two have been working on The Colored Conventions Project for over 10 years. What brought you together?  

Foreman: Jim and I started the Colored Conventions Project with others in a 2011 graduate course I was teaching [at the University of Delaware]. We think it’s now the longest and largest ongoing Black digital humanities project. CCP is a research hub that provides the records and tells the stories of early, Black-led, organizing that’s been largely overshadowed by the history of abolition and the underground railroad—even though the movement began in 1830, before the start of the American Anti-Slavery Society and lasted for over 30 years after it ended.

Casey: Gabrielle and I had gotten to know each other through activism beyond campus. I read a couple of the conventions that she had assigned in the course, and got bitten by the bug. Gabrielle gave an assignment to research and then write a short biography about one of the people who were at the 1859 convention in Tremont Temple in Boston. We all wrote micro biographies and created individual profiles on Facebook, and then “friended” each other, so to speak [for use of a social network plug-in Facebook was then featuring]. But as soon as we created this community, Facebook started to delete all of that material, saying, well these aren’t real, living people. In response, we decided to create a space where we could share some of this information and keep this conversation going. We knew there were only a couple of books—reprinted in the 1960s and 1970s—on Black conventions, but as we went back through newspaper databases and the archives, we saw that there were so many more of these that no one had even begun to collect.


Q: And you wanted to bring that information online?

Casey: We really started out by doing a collective research project to figure out what took place in the history of Black organizing. Where did it take place? Who went to these conventions? How did they know each other? How did they interact with each other? What did they talk about?

Foreman: We were really interested in the ways in which digital formats can allow us to think about visualization and the questions that could not be asked if we were doing traditional research. What’s generally inherited are the stories of Black organizers from the 19th century in relationship to their white interlocutors. We were interested in asking questions about social networks using digital tools. Jim is one of those people who knows how to use social network analysis and social network digital tools to track and trace the ways in which people who are generally not historiographically connected to each other actually are. We were able to ask those questions by using digital tools, and also to aggregate large amounts of data that it’s very hard for people to do singly if they’re not quantitative researchers. And so we started to use quantitative and qualitative tools that allowed us to tell stories through digital exhibits.


Q: How and where did you find these stories?

Casey: There’s a historian named Howard Holman Bell—who died the year before we founded the CCP—who wrote a dissertation about the [Black] convention movement and documented the national conventions in the 1950s, and a famous labor historian named Philip Foner collected the state conventions in the 1970s. They’re both very well-known and highly respected, and we are among the people who have celebrated their work and have built on it. The Foner family graciously gave us permission to reproduce all of his work [on the conventions] and it is the starting point from which we have built our own digital archive.

Foreman: We have built agreements with historical newspaper vendors like Gale Cengage and Accessible Archives that allow us to share what’s in their databases. We’ve also been very intentional about social media, and that has been an important way for us to find new records. We have, for example, somebody who was doing research in Kew Gardens in the U.K., who found records from Indiana’s conventions. We have a “seeking records” button on coloredconventions.org where you can send us things that have to do specifically with convention history. We also encourage people to get in touch with their local repositories and we’re part of a community of librarians and archivists. We support and encourage anyone who is interested in making sure that these histories get preserved.


Q: Tell us about Douglass Day.

Casey: We’ve also done a lot of work to revive Douglass Day, which is really the kernel of Black History Month. Every year we collaborate with graduate students, librarians, staff, and faculty. We open the event to anybody with access to the Internet, and especially encourage folks to host events to participate together. This is our seventh year doing the Douglass Day celebration. Each year we focus on a different digitized chapter of Black history. This year, we’ll be transcribing all of the surviving papers of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a teacher, author and activist—and also one of the first Black women to attend law school. Everyone is invited to participate. We’ve got seven thousand people signed up—everyone from 11th grade high school classes to community colleges will be participating, all around the world. All of them will be watching the livestream from Penn State. We also like to create joy, so we sing happy birthday, and we even have a birthday cake bake-off contest.


Q: What are some of the other highlights of your decade-long research?

Casey: In doing this research, we have figured out that there were something in the order of 10,000 to 12,000 Black men and women who served as delegates from their communities at county, state, regional, national, and international conventions across North America. Records exist in all of those places. There’s never been a central collection of the physical materials. And so this really in part is a project that could only happen thanks to digital technology, because everything exists everywhere. We know that there are copies of these records in basically all 50 states. There are many in Canada. There are many abroad, in England and further. We really had to sort of do a lot of work to figure out how to put all of these together for the very first time.

Foreman: We have more than 40 national conventions that are freely accessible on our site. We link to research databases, we have maps, menus, and songs on our website to visualize the stories of 19th century [Black] activism. We’re now creating curricula that can be adopted into classrooms for high school students and college students. We’ve also published a book, The Colored Convention Movement: Black Organizing in the 19th Century.  It’s the first full length book on the subject in more than 50 years and it was one of Ms. Magazine’s top 50 books last year. We have also created digital exhibits that accompany many of the chapters in that book.


Q: When and where did the first Black convention take place?

Foreman: In Philadelphia in 1830, the last year of Bishop Richard Allen’s life. He was one of the most important Black religious figures of the 19th century and the founder of the AME Church, the longest standing independent Black denomination in the world. Four of the first Black conventions were held in Philadelphia. Last October, we debuted a beautiful set of murals in Philadelphia at 4th and Washington—the first public art work to commemorate the movement.  


Q: And what was the theme of that first convention?

Casey: There were a couple of topics that they took up. First was the sweeping wave of anti-Black laws being passed across the U.S., designed to encourage or force free Black populations to leave the United States. In response, people in Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York and beyond had an increasing sense that local responses to these kinds of problems were never going to be enough, that it was going to require a national conversation and a collective response to anti-Black laws and all of the long arms of slavery. In 1830, a few people in Philadelphia, including Bishop Allen, put out a call, and decided to meet in Philadelphia. They met behind closed doors for a few days. In the convention itself, they talked about a couple of things. First, they talked about the need for their children to get better access to education, which was not certainly publicly supported at the time, to put it mildly. But they also talked about the prospect of emigrating, of leaving the United States under the belief that this was never going to be a country that would afford Black people their full citizenship and civil rights. This proposal was not a difficult sell for a lot of people meeting in Philadelphia in 1830, to think about moving to Canada, to the Caribbean, to West Africa. And this was the spark of conversations that would lead them to meet annually in 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, and so on, for the first handful of years.


Q: Did themes changes through the decades?

Casey: Each year, people would come to the new conventions with new proposals and new ideas. Sometimes those would be popular, sometimes they would debate them really intensely, and people would disagree. It’s really important to emphasize that there was not one single shared opinion or a singular Black community. It was people really trying to figure out together what the important version of those questions are, and what realistic or idealistic solutions might be. And this was where the movement takes place in the 1830s, and then largely evolves in the 1840s when a new generation of younger activists took up the same set of questions and gave different answers than they had in the 1830s. 

Foreman: There were all kinds of reasons that free Black people and people who had emancipated themselves would want to meet in conventions: freedom from slavery and state-sanctioned violence. Freedom from mob violence and anti-Black violence, freedom to send their children to public schools that actually respected them, freedom to do all of this while they were paying taxes but were still excluded from the rights that other residents and citizens had, and also freedom to work in jobs and positions for which they were qualified but were nonetheless excluded. So some of the very questions that continued into the 20th and now the 21st century were the subject of these conventions. They included “murders and outrages” committees that again, were protesting anti-Black violence and the state’s refusal to respond when Black people were being murdered without accountability.


Q: Going back to the men and women who attended conventions: Who were they?

Casey: There were a lot of notable people, like Richard Allen. Frederick Douglass spent almost all his adult life going to conventions. There were also enduring communities of Black leaders across the 19th century, both men and women, who were not necessarily the most famous people, and as I said, 10,000 or 12,000 people who don’t appear in historical records. Their presence at these conventions is recorded in the pamphlets that would be published afterwards with the minutes, which would record that they were present and sometimes that they served on a committee. They are easily missed in these historical stories but they formed so many important relationships and communities. In Ohio, for example, there were 18 people who went together to conventions almost every single year over the course of 30 years.


Q: Shirley, you head up the Center’s Black Women’s Organizing Archive. What are some of the highlights of your findings about Black women’s roles in collective organizing?

Moody-Turner: From the late 1870s through the early 1900s, as formal political power was being taken from Black men, Black women moved unapologetically to the forefront as intellectual activists who sought to re-shape public opinion while fighting for civil and political rights and improved conditions for African Americans within their communities and across the nation. Their first national organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), marked their entrance on the national scene and their founding convention was identified by the Black press as the “the most important gathering of Colored women ever assembled on this continent.” Black women crisscrossed North America and traveled abroad in their courageous battle for equal rights and social justice. They addressed international audiences in London, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Boston, and more and the NACW quickly became one the most prominent Black organizations in the country, with 1,500 affiliated clubs and nearly 100,000 members by 1916.


Q: Given how scattered the stories of Black collective organizing are, I would imagine unearthing Black women’s histories is even harder.

Moody-Turner: The papers are often scattered across numerous different repositories and usually buried within the archives of their male contemporaries. Archival documents refer to women simply as “the wife of,” or they’re identified by their initials—or as one document stated of their role at a meeting of Black male intellectuals, “the women provided lunch.”  And yet, if we dig a little deeper in the archives, we find that they were courageous leaders in the fight for equal rights and social justice. The BWOA has been able to locate over 103 items across 70 repositories for the four key founding foremothers of the Black women’s club movement: Anna Julia Cooper, Frances E.W. Harper, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.


Q: I’m sure you have found some incredible stories about these incredible women…

Moody-Turner: In our partnership with the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, for instance, we’ve digitized the papers of celebrated educator and activist Anna Julia Cooper, who challenged Jim Crow curriculum in the nation’s capital 50 years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned legal segregation in public accommodations. She saw her greatest accomplishment as sending her African American students as early as 1903 to elite colleges and universities including Harvard, Brown, and Yale—a feat for which she would, just two years later, be deposed from her position. Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black woman newspaper editor in North America, publishing Canada’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, and later serving as a recruiter for the Union Army.  

Foreman: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frances E. W. Harper are two of the figures who are just stunning. One of my favorite stories is walking into the Delaware Historical Society, and the archivist handed me a Delaware colored convention [pamphlet] and saying, have you ever seen this? This wasn’t in any of the collections, I opened it up and there is Frances E.W. Harper—the most prolific Black woman novelist of the 19th century, the most important Black woman poet of the 19th century—speaking in Dover, Del. And there’s Mary Ann Shadd Cary who was a delegate to the 1855 National Convention and whose 200th birthday we’re about to recognize on Douglass Day.  

Casey: When you read her biography, it feels like you’re reading about nine different people. She was a teacher by training and then after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she moved to Canada, where she helped meet the needs of refugees from slavery. That led her to teaching at her school, her political activism, and joining the conventions in the 1850s—and also being one of the first Black women to start and edit her own newspaper in which she has lots to say about all the issues of the day in ways that are both smarter and more militant than many of her male peers. She recruited people to join the Civil War and after the war ended, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she became, as Gabrielle said, one of the first Black women to attend law school. She founded literary societies, she invented medicines, and became a kind of elder stateswoman for a rising generation of Black leaders in Washington, D.C. in the moment right before the founding of the NAACP. The papers about her life are scattered all over the place. They went undiscovered for many, many decades. We are delighted that they have been digitized. This has sparked a new generation of scholarship.


Q: Yes, I would imagine that the project has resulted in many new areas of research and scholarship.

Foreman: People are excited about the scores of essays, the dozens of books, and the absolutely new questions that will emerge from these documents and records. These are stories that have never been told before. The introduction of this collection of records and digital exhibits into public consciousness and into scholarship is paving the way for people to ask brand new questions about American organizing, about Black organizing, and about American democracy.

Moody-Turner: We’re excited to see the new kinds of research and scholarship this project has generated right here at Penn State among our undergraduate and graduate students and BWOA research team.  Entire dissertations, like that by our graduate student leader and BWOA co-coordinator, Sabrina Evans, that draw on BWOA materials to tell the story of Black women’s “constant agitation” for equal rights and full citizenship, for example or other projects like those by Yolanda Mackey, Lauren Barnes, and Kesla Elmore, that draw on the methods and practices of BWOA research to recover and highlight the contributions of Black women intellectuals and activists to social and literary movements across the long 19th century and into today. 


Q: You’ve also trained many students in digital methods, creating a new generation of researchers…

Foreman: As an archive building project and a pipeline building project,  we are deeply committed to making sure that the people who emerge from this project have an accelerated path to do impactful work that doesn’t just replicate the methods of research that we’ve inherited, but equips them to do transformative work—historically and in relation to the very social change issues that the convention-goers themselves articulated and stood for.


Q: Finally, Gabrielle, you’ve also staged, through dance and theatre, some of the histories that you’ve uncovered.

Foreman: I have a 10-year partnership with the renowned University of Delaware dance educator Lynnette Young Overby and the poet Glenis Redmond, Poet Laureate of Greenville, S.C. For the last decade, we’ve staged stories of early, little-known, Black writers, potters, and Black women agitators. Lynnette, Glenis, and the collectives Lynnette creates have brought my research to life, including pieces about David Drake, the enslaved poet and potter, one of the few writers who never published anything on paper: He wrote his couplets on his pots. That collaboration included the painter Jonathan Green and generated my most recent book, Praise Song for Dave the Potter: Art and Poetry for David Drake. Lynnette and Glenis have also worked on the colored conventions, on Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and on the three Harriets, Harriet Jacob, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Wilson. And I have written both about Wilson and Jacobs. So I’m just very gratified that these artists have taken me on as a project historian, and we’ve been able to create curricula that have allowed people to interact with living history in a different way.