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Court reporters preserve Freedmen’s Bureau documents at Transcribe-A-Thon

Transcribe-A-Thon participants

Following a successful Zoom Transcribe-A-Thon in February arranged by Margary Rogers, RPR, CRI, an official court reporter and captioner from Washington, D.C., and Juanita Price, RPR, an official court reporter and captioner from Gainesville, Va., the National Court Reporters Foundation (NCRF) sponsored a similar hands-on event at the 2022 NCRA Conference & Expo on Thursday, July 19, in Orlando, Fla. Coverage of this event was featured on the local Channel 9 station broadcast that night in a video segment called “Volunteers in Orlando work to preserve the stories of newly freed enslaved people.”

The United States government formed the Freedmen’s Bureau near the end of the American Civil War to assist newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia. In the process it gathered handwritten personal information from about 4 million African Americans, including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital, and property records. Those handwritten documents have been scanned into a Smithsonian Transcription Center platform, which attendees accessed on their writers and laptops. Each completed transcribed document is searchable online by names and topics.

Freedmen’s Bureau records

Said Rogers: “These letters are basically saying, ‘I want to find my mother. She was sold on this trade,’ or ‘I was wronged here,’ or ‘This is my land that I was sold to.’ These are things that are not in the history books.”

She continued: “We had a great Transcribe-A-Thon at the Conference, sponsored by the NCRF. We hope to do it again next year at the NCRA Conference & Expo in Houston, Texas. Join us!”

Her motivational messages to court reporters align with the Foundation’s mission: “Promoting Our Profession” and “Serving Our Community.”

Price, Rogers’ co-organizer, said, “Wow! Our court reporters and captioners showed up and showed out at the Transcribe-A-Thon! Using our unique court reporting and captioning skills, we have the ability to reach out into … areas to assist in transcribing materials from the past, which are and still have been untapped. It is imperative that history is accurately preserved! Not only are we Guardians of the Record, but we can also be Guardians of the Preservation of History!

“I hope many more of our colleagues will join us in future events! Thank you, NCRF, for sponsoring this historical event,” Price said.

Margary Rogers (right) being interviewed by Channel 9

In the Channel 9 news piece, court reporter Jeaninn Alexis demonstrated her writing skills on her steno writer, translating a handwritten Freedmen’s Bureau letter. Alexis said, “The opportunity to transcribe records from the Freedmen’s Bureau has been eye-opening and endearing. I’m so grateful to have participated and will continue to assist in its completion.”

Said court reporting student Dana Spear: “There is a healing that occurs when we bring these stories and letters to life. I hope that my meager efforts can benefit someone who is trying to find out about their ancestors.”

Spear said, “Years ago I bought a CD of the Freedman’s Bureau records because I thought it was fascinating. … I love family history. … Doing projects like this provides more information to help other people discover their heritage and understand who they are and where they come from.”

New court reporting student Brooke A. Spear said, “I have done this sort of thing before for my church. I love discovering random bits of information about people who lived through important times in history. I hope to do this more often.”

Attendee Kristin Young, RPR, was thrilled to contribute to such an incredibly important part of American history. “I loved doing the Freedmen’s Bureau transcription,” Young said. “It gave me such insight to how difficult it was for former slaves to try to negotiate wages for their services and how challenging it must have been for the former slaves to simply write down the words in these contracts when they probably had almost no formal schooling through no fault of their own.”

Attendee Gilda Pastor-Hernandez, RPR, said, “I thought the experience was extremely rewarding and felt a sense of responsibility to be as accurate as possible because I was dealing with such sensitive documents which embodied people’s emotional history. I’m so happy to have been a part of it!” 

Dawn Mack Boaden, RPR, stated that she totally loved participating in this project. “I loved trying to decipher what people wrote and how they wrote things as well. And they are all written in cursive, a written language that may be forgotten in the future. I was reminded again of this project last night as I was watching the show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ This can also be used as a tool to trace back who you’re related to and what happened in their lives. We are so busy in the here and now that we forget what life was like before we existed. We all need to be more aware of our history, because in reality it is our history.”

She continued, “Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m the Vice President of the Massachusetts Court Reporters Association (MCRA) and cannot wait to share this with them at our next meeting in the fall.”

Using their steno talents, attendees had the satisfaction of capturing this pivotal point in history when people transitioned from slavery to being free men and women. Rogers and Price are planning another Transcribe-A-Thon for February 2023. Find the Smithsonian’s Freedmen’s Bureau records here: https://transcription.si.edu/.

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