St. Thomas History Students Contribute to Anti-slavery Digital Archives

A call for help from the Boston Public Library to historians around the country inspired a “Transcribe-a-thon” hosted by the St. Thomas History Department on March 13. Thousands of scanned, original documents from early abolitionists need to be transcribed to make them digitally discoverable for research.

St. Thomas history faculty Kari Zimmerman and David Williard saw an opportunity for aspiring historians to have an authentic experience.

History faculty Michael Blaakman works with students during St. Thomas' "Transcribe-a-thon" on March 13.

History faculty Michael Blaakman works with students during St. Thomas' "Transcribe-a-thon" on March 13.

“It is not often that we get to work with primary sources [from the emancipation era],” Williard said. “We don’t have a lot of archives here in Minnesota. So, to be able to do this online, it’s pretty amazing. It’s also the direction our field is moving, with more digital humanities projects.”

A sophisticated, cloud-based tool lets students read the scanned, handwritten letters and postcards, then transcribe the text. Three different people transcribe each line to ensure its accuracy.

“It’s fun, but it’s also hard because, for most of our students, they don’t often see 19th century handwriting,” said Zimmerman, who enrolled St. Thomas in the project and values the hands-on experience it offers students.

For Williard’s students who are studying the 19th century struggle of African Americans—first in slavery, then in freedom, and then as citizens navigating U.S. politics—interacting with primary sources is a key learning objective.

“Students are going to find their own sources and make history out of them … turn the raw material of letters, diaries and pamphlets into historical interpretation that can help us understand the past better, more authentically,” Williard said, adding that the transcribe-a-thon might give them a head-start on their projects.

Most of the scanned documents are letters between highly educated, elite abolitionists living in the greater Boston area in the 1830’s. Williard said the letters usually contain community information or town gossip, then a paragraph about the abolitionist movement and its various strategies and concerns. News about how other abolitionists were faring might include a warning of danger.

“Abolition was a movement that put people in harm’s way,” Williard said. “This was a radical movement in the 1830s that could cost people their lives.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Yohuru Williams works with Elizabeth Kaiser.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Yohuru Williams works with Elizabeth Kaiser.

“In the 1830s you see the underground nature of this movement—struggling with what they see as the great moral wrong of American history and trying to right it,” Williard added. “It’s not yet the great national cause that it will be by the Civil War era; it’s more of a radical challenge to the status quo … Yet in thirty years’ time abolition becomes a major part of the Union war effort.”

The Boston Public Library will house the transcriptions by St. Thomas students and faculty in a digital archive collection for future generations of scholars and students.

“The people who follow in their footsteps will be able to use this evidence to enhance their understanding of history,” Williard said. “This is really a public community service. We are helping to build the history archive for the future.”

For history major Elizabeth Sadusky the transcription was not only a public service; it fed her passion.

“Getting them transferred into a digital context so that people can search for terms that they are looking for, it’s going help narrow down sources for a lot of people,” she said.

It’s also setting the stage for her as she prepares to depart for the “We March for Justice” trip to Mississippi with English Associate Professor Todd Lawrence, Excel! Research Scholars Program Director Cynthia Fraction and Williard over spring break.

“We’re going to see the latter effects of this movement when we look at the Civil Rights Movement [on this trip],” Williard said.