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Wilkes University community helps to transcribe Black history

Inside a Wilkes University computer lab, music played low in the background. Images of yellowing old newspaper articles filled the computer screens of around 20 students, faculty and staff members.

They were transcribing the documents of publisher and anti-slavery and women’s suffrage advocate, Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

“We're not just listening to a lecture, we're not just taking in some history, we are participating in making these materials more accessible down the road and that's really important," said Amy Sopcak-Joseph. She’s an assistant professor of history at the university.

Sopcak-Joseph joined the university’s faculty four years ago and brought with her the annual Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon.

Douglass Day is the foundation of Black History Month and honors Frederick Douglass. He was many things: an American social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and national leader of the abolitionist movement. Born into slavery in the early 1800s, he never knew his exact birth date. He picked Feb. 14 because his mother called him her “little valentine.”

Thousands of participants across the world participate in the annual Transcribe-a-thon, which is in its 7th year. The transcribed documents help preserve Black History and make them more readable and searchable for educators and students, said Sopcak-Joseph.

The Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State partnered with the Douglass Day organization to make Cary’s historical documents available.

While living in Canada, Cary helped to shelter and resettle escaped slaves. She founded and published The Provincial Freeman. It was the first Canadian newspaper not just published by an African-American female but by a female of any ethnicity.

"She did a really extraordinary amount of things in the time that she lived in the 19th century," said Sopcak-Joseph.

Kathrine Ermeus is a junior Political Science major at Wilkes University. While transcribing, she learned that women were among those in the first few graduating classes from Howard University's School of Law. She hopes to attend the law school in Washington, D.C.

This was Ermeus’s third year transcribing.

"There's really a lot of different pieces and a lot of different parts of history that we have yet to uncover," she said. "This is what came before a lot of us students of color. To read what they were going through to get us to where we are right now, I just think it's super enlightening and that's what makes it stand out from every other event for Black History Month.”

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.