12.19.12 - VILLANOVA, Pa. – “Thursday, January 1, 1863: To day has bin a memorable day and I thank god I have been sperd [spared] to see it.” So begins the opening entry of the Civil War diaries of Emilie Davis, a 21-year-old free black Philadelphian upon hearing the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. From that “memorable day” Davis chronicled the anticipation and excitement, highs and lows, of both the nation’s and her own personal progress through the dark days of the U.S. Civil War. Largely forgotten for over a century-and-a-half, the diaries have been rescued from obscurity by a team of Villanova University researchers who will launch the first transcribed and annotated Emilie Davis Diaries website in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 2013.
The Emilie Davis Diaries website is the result of a collaborative effort between Villanova University’s departments of history and communication, The Pennsylvania State University, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Funded by a Villanova University Institute for Teaching and Learning (VITAL) grant, the research effort was directed by Villanova Associate Professor of History Professor Judith Giesberg. Working in conjunction with several of her history graduate students and assisted by Michael Mafodda from Villanova’s Department of Communication, the Emilie Davis Diaries research team painstakingly transcribed and annotated the handwritten diary entries contained in three leather bound volumes. The group worked with archivists at the HSP where the Emilie Davis diaries are held and with digitization specialists at Penn State who scanned the original diary pages.
The new website not only makes Emilie Davis’ recollections of one of the most turbulent times in American history more readable and accessible, it brings Civil War Philadelphia to life, says Giesberg.
“Reading Emilie’s entries, we are invited to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation; we worry alongside of her for the safety of Pennsylvanians during the Confederate invasion; and we relive the hours of anxious praying as news reached Philadelphia of President Lincoln’s mortal wounding – followed by stunned disbelief that Lincoln’s experiment in emancipation might have died with the slain president,” Giesberg said.
Davis was an extraordinary figure in history, according to Giesberg. She was a student at The Institute for Colored Youth, Philadelphia’s premier black school, who supported herself as a domestic servant. Davis was an activist, attending war rallies and meetings of the Ladies Union Meeting, Giesberg added.
In addition to making the diaries universally available, the Emilie Davis Diaries website project has served as a valuable learning experience for Villanova undergraduate and graduate history students, engaging them in the process of historical research, providing practical experience in the transcription and annotation of primary sources, and in the design and construction of educational websites.
”As a student of history, I am especially grateful for archives that make their materials available online,” Rebecca Capobianco,” one of the graduate students involved in the project said.
She added, “I am excited to add to those resources. Emilie’s diary is such a rich and unique primary source. Given its accessibility, we hope that the Emilie Davis Diaries website will be useful not just to college students, but to educators and students at all levels.”
Giesberg agreed. “Davis’ diaries offer readers the opportunity to experience the war as it unfolded, and we couldn’t be more excited that this project will offer this opportunity to a wide variety of website users.”