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A sense of Civil War-era Philadelphia can now be experienced vicariously through the memoirs of Emilie Davis, a 21-year old free black Philadelphian.
The memoirs were transcribed and annotated by a team of researchers who launched the Emilie Davis Diaries website in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 2013.
The website is the result of a collaborative effort between the University’s departments of History and Communication, the Pennsylvania State University, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The research efforts were directed by Judith Giesberg, associate professor of history, who worked in conjunction with several of her history graduate students to transcribe and annotate the handwritten diary entries, which were contained in three pocket-sized leather bound volumes.
The diaries are part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collections. The originals were scanned as part of Pennsylvania State University and the Richards Civil War Era Center’s “The People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project.”
“My motivation to get the diaries transcribed and annotated came in fall 2011, when I was planning my graduate Civil War class for the following spring,” Giesberg said. “I realized that we would soon be celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and it would be really great to have these diaries available for people to read during this celebration. The diaries begin on January 1, 1863, the day that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
According to Giesberg, the new website not only makes Emilie Davis’s account of the Civil War era more readable and accessible, but it also brings Civil War Philadelphia to life.
In her diaries for the years 1863, 1864 and 1865, Davis recounts black Philadelphians’ celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, the excitement of Gettysburg and the mourning of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, allowing readers to experience the war in real time.
“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.
Giesberg also said that Davis was an extraordinary figure in history. She was a student at Philadelphia’s premier black school, the Institute for Colored Youth, while supporting herself as a domestic servant.
Davis, an activist, attended war rallies and meetings of the Ladies Union Meeting.
“All of us working on this project know a whole lot about the Civil War,” Giesberg said. “
“But the best part of it was that as we read Emilie’s diaries it all seemed strange again—fresh.”
Aside from making Davis’s diaries universally available, the project was a valuable learning experience for undergraduate and graduate students at the University, allowing them to engage in the process of historical research, gain experience in the transcription and annotation of primary sources and learn about the design and construction of educational websites.
Giesberg first took the idea of transcribing the diaries to her graduate students.
Five students from the original class then signed on to the project for the summer.
“They tried all sorts of tricks to read the diaries — projecting them on a white board, darkening and blowing them up, and in the end, discovered that the more they came to know Emilie the more possible it became to read her writing,” Giesberg said.
“By the end of the summer, these incredibly talented and committed students had transcribed the entire 400 pages. Then, in August, they began annotating the diary, and this helped to flesh out many of the events Emilie describes in the diary.”
Support for the Emilie Davis website project was provided by Falvey Memorial Library. The Department of History, Department of Communication and the Villanova Institute for Teaching and Learning provided financial support.

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