Douglass Day 2021 Recap: Celebrating and Preserving Black History

On Friday, February 12th, the U-M Library hosted its third annual Douglass Day celebration in honor of Frederick Douglass, 19th century American abolitionist, author, and orator. As with previous years, this event highlights the life, legacy, and work of a Black historical figure who is honored alongside Douglass. This year, that figure was Mary Church Terrell, an activist, educator, and co-founder of the NAACP as well as one of the original creators of the first Douglass Day in 1897. 

To celebrate and delve into the complexities of Terrell’s achievements, the U-M Library was thrilled to feature Dr. Shelley Haley, as our keynote speaker. Caitlin Pollock (Digital Scholarship Specialist) opened up the event with a powerful land and labor acknowledgement that recognized both displaced Indigenous peoples, and the invisible, gendered, racialized and under-compensated labor that makes academic institutions and our technologies run.

Sierra Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Classical Studies at U-M, then introduced Dr. Haley. Dr. Haley’s keynote lecture, “Tragedy and Triumph: the Personal Cost of Racial Injustice and Social Justice Activism in the Life of Mary Church Terrell,” was an immense hit with attendees. The event had over 120 people register, and over 70 attendees joined the event synchronously. In her lecture, Dr. Haley, included thoughtful and entertaining anecdotes and asides, shared biographical information about Mary Church Terrell, her lifelong activism, and situated her legacy and her sometimes problematic behaviors and beliefs about gender, respectability, and colorism within historical context.

screenshot of presentation in zoom with slides and participant thumbnails
Screenshot of event featuring Dr. Shelley Haley (bottom right), and a slide from her talk that includes an image of the Oberlin College Reunion for the class of 1884. Mary Church Terrell is in the bottom left with the fur collar.

Attendees of the event shared positive comments about the talk. Jasmine Pawlicki (Outreach and Engagement Specialist) noted at the time, “That was an amazing presentation and artful storytelling!” and Rob Pettigrew (Senior Learning Technologies Specialist) exclaimed, “what a fascinating and wonderful presentation.” By the end of the lecture, several participants stated that they were ready for the Dr. Haley podcast. (At this time, we have no confirmation that a podcast with Dr. Haley is forthcoming.) For those who could not attend the lecture, it was recorded and can be viewed here.

Following the presentation, attendees were invited to join several rooms to participate in a number of activities, including transcription, digital art-making, and socializing over baked goods. Volunteers in the transcription room spent their time transcribing the digitized papers of Mary Church Terrell at the Library of Congress, using their crowdsourced transcription platform By the People. Alongside Miranda Marraccini (Digital Pedagogy Librarian), U-M’s transcription volunteers joined over 3,400 volunteers worldwide, who transcribed over 21,000 documents as part of the Mary Church Terrell transcribe-a-thon campaign. Their effort will make her legacy more accessible to everyone on the internet.

The more creatively-inclined attendees joined members of the U-M Library’s Art Alliance, namely Breanna Hamm (Senior Learning Technologies Specialist) and Charles Saadiq (Administrative Assistant Senior), who led participants in creating digital valentines, posters, and other digital media featuring the likeness and words of radical Black activists. 

poster featuring image of a Black woman in pink suit with tshirt reading "We are the super-majority" accompanied by rose and text CELEBRATE RADICAL LOVE
Designed by Marilene (Mars) De Ritis

portrait of a Black woman looking powerfully at the camera with text "Our Lives Matter" - Alicia Garza
Designed by Breanna Hamm

images in profile of a younger Black woman with resolute expression and older Black woman beaming (Angela Davis at different stages of life) with text She believed she could so she did plus a further quote and Douglass Day hashtag
Designed by Thomas Dickens. 

Finally, several U-M Librarians hosted a casual kitchen table conversation in the tradition of women of color organizers where they chatted about historical recipes, current events, and shared images of their own birthday cakes baked in honor of Frederick Douglass’s birthday, which is traditionally celebrated on February 14th of each year. The highlights of this room were the Douglass Day Spotify Playlist curated by Clayton Colmon of the Colored Conventions Project, and the Douglass Day 2021 Recipe Collection, curated by Caitlin Pollock, who, along with a number of student volunteers, gathered recipes by Black chefs and cooks, some formerly enslaved, that were made available by HathiTrust and the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive

Many thanks to those who registered, attended, and participated in the event, and to the numerous volunteers who were integral in making this event run so smoothly: Thomas Dickens, Jesus Espinoza, Erik LaCoss, Gregor Langbehn, Mary Morris, Charles Saadiq, Justin Schell, Breanna Hamm, Naomi Binnie, Amanda Peters, Meghan Sitar and Library Ambassadors Delaney Jorgensen and Dawn Lau