The resiliency and determination of African Americans to become literate, as part of a long historical struggle against slavery and racism in favor of freedom and equality, gives testimony to the value they placed on education. During the period of slavery, the desire for literacy was in itself an act of resistance. The quest for book learning served as a direct challenge to the repressive law and social customs that strove to keep both enslaved and free African Americans illiterate, as literacy meant empowerment and freedom from enslavement.
Such appreciation for the written word was passed down for generations in the slave community until slavery’s abolition. After slavery, this cultural appreciation for book learning among freed Southern Blacks flourished and took on new forms. As an ideal, literacy still equated with freedom, only this time it related to the extension of personal freedoms as citizens in a democracy and it served as the foundation for citizenship and individual and collective improvement for Blacks. This entry recalls that history.
During The Slavery Era
On the eve of the Civil War (April 1861), less than 5 percent of the 4.5 million African Americans living in the United States had ever attended school. Consequently, the vast majority of African Americans, 90-plus percent, were deemed illiterate. The primary reason for the lack of literacy and schooling opportunities among African Americans was slavery (4 million African Americans were still enslaved on the eve of the Civil War) and the various antiliteracy laws established to deny or restrict them from learning.
The Role Of Literacy
Nearly every American colony, and later state, prohibited or restricted teaching free and enslaved African Americans to read or write. South Carolina was the first. As early as 1740, the colony enacted a law that forbade the teaching of enslaved African Americans. Thirty years later, colonial Georgia enacted a similar statute.
In the American South restrictions against African American literacy grew worse during the antebellum or pre–Civil War era. The laws against teaching enslaved African Americans to read and write during the first half of the nineteenth century grew out of a variety of fears and concerns, the most straightforward concern being the use of literacy as a means to freedom (such as the forging of passes for escape).
By 1840, the slave-sanctioning states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia imposed punishment such as fines, public whippings, and/or imprisonment on anyone caught teaching enslaved or free African Americans. Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee never legally forbade the teaching of enslaved African Americans, but public opinion against African American literacy had so hardened that the actual opportunities for enslaved Blacks and free persons of color to learn decreased as much as in states where illiteracy was legally mandated. Mississippi, Missouri, and Maryland never statutorily penalized anyone associated with teaching African Americans. Rather, they barred public assemblages of African Americans for educational purposes and strongly discouraged Whites from assisting Blacks in “book learning.”
Local sentiment served as an additional impediment to Southern-born African Americans becoming literate during the antebellum era. Proslavery ideologues assumed only madmen would teach their slaves to read or mingle with literate free Blacks. Most believed that slaves should only receive instruction that would qualify them for their “particular station” in life. These sentiments were ingrained points of view by the 1840s, and they complemented the growing number of aforementioned laws banning or hindering literacy among African Americans. Similarly, they served not only as a rationale for the continued maintenance of hereditary slavery and de jure (by law) segregation of African Americans in a democratic society, but also to validate the pseudoscience of the day that determined African Americans to be by nature genetically inferior and accordingly incapable of learning.
Enslaved African Americans who aspired to become literate had to learn in secrecy or among individuals they trusted or assumed were uninformed of the law. Many learned firsthand the horrors that awaited a slave able to obtain some book learning. As a child during slavery, William Heard personally witnessed the punishment inflicted on a slave who secretly learned the rudiments of literacy. Heard starkly remembered that any slave caught writing would have his forefinger cut from his right hand. Disfigurement was to ensure that a literate slave never wrote again, because a slave able to write could literally write his or her own pass to freedom. Former slave Lucindy Jurdon had similar recollections. Correspondingly, Arnold Gragston of Macon County, Kentucky, recalled that when his master suspected his slaves of learning to read and write, he would call them to the big house and severely beat them. Still, despite the dangers and difficulties, countless slaves learned to read and write.
In fact, historians speculate that by 1860, 5 to 10 percent of enslaved African Americans had acquired some degree of literacy without ever attending school. Some would learn from the slave-owners themselves, or from a fellow enslaved person who learned to read or write earlier in life, but most would learn to read and write from the slave-owner’s children, who were not cognizant of the antiliteracy laws or local sentiment that discouraged teaching their young Black friends what they had learned in school.
The Civil War And Reconstruction
The fact that a small percentage of African Americans acquired a rudimentary education during enslavement was significantly important during and after the Civil War. These literate African Americans would serve as some of the first teachers to the masses of former slaves who aspired to become literate during enslavement but were not allowed because of slavery and the law. When various Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy, the nation no longer recognized the laws or sovereignty of these states; accordingly, the antiliteracy laws that hitherto denied African Americans opportunities to become literate or attend school became null and void.
Formerly enslaved African Americans throughout the South apparently were well aware of the changes. This was particularly true after 1863 when the nation ratified the Emancipation Proclamation. Liberated Blacks throughout the South immediately demonstrated their lifelong desire for acquiring an education by building and attending schools. Their goal was to use schooling as a means to obtain liberty and literacy for citizenship. But even before the Emancipation Proclamation, as early as 1861, free, freed, fugitive, and enslaved African Americans throughout the South established churches and schoolhouses for individual and collective improvement, and former slaves and freeborn Southern Blacks, literate and barely literate, served as these schools’ first teachers.
All the same, the most impressive history of African Americans attempting to educate themselves came after emancipation. Between 1863 and 1870, countless former slaves rushed to the schoolhouse with the hopes of learning how to read and write. In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington, a part of this movement himself, described most vividly his people’s struggle for education: “Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. … It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn” (pp. 30–31).
Most attended what was called a freedmen school, or a school started by Northern teachers who migrated south to assist freed people in their transition from slavery to citizenship. By 1870, more than 9,500 teachers, with the assistance of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—a governmental agency commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau—taught nearly 250,000 pupils in more than 4,300 schools.
Another type of grassroots school that arose in the immediate emancipation years was what the late historian Herbert Gutman called “schools of freedom.” “Freedom schools” were established, financed, and maintained by former slaves, with only the minimal assistance of others. These virtually self-sufficient schools arose in every locale following the Civil War and historians are finally giving them the attention they deserve.
The collective effort on the part of formerly enslaved African Americans in these freedom schools served as the catalyst for the aforementioned educational activities of Northern freedmen aid and missionary organizations. These agencies and organizations went south to “uplift” and educate former slaves only to find them already engaged in the processes of learning in every state they entered. This surprised some Northerners who maintained preconceived and generalized notions that all enslaved African Americans were downtrodden and in desperate need of guidance and assistance.
Nonetheless, the combined energies and educational activities of Northerners, freed people, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, systematically educated a people who had been historically denied an education, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century nearly 60 percent of all African Americans in the South over the age of ten were deemed literate. This meant that in less than forty years literacy rates among African Americans had increased six fold.
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- Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Anderson, J. D. (1995). Literacy and education in the African-American experience. In V. Gadsden & D. Wagner (Eds.), Literacy among African-American youth: Issues in learning, teaching, and schooling (pp. 19–37).
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- Gutman, H. G. (2000). Schools for freedom. In T. C. Holt & E. Barkley Brown (Eds.), Major problems in African-American history (Vol. 2, pp. 388–401). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Heard, W. (1924). From slavery to the bishopric in the A.M.E. church. New York: Arno Press.
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- Span, C. M. (2002). Alternative pedagogy: The rise of the private Black academy in early postbellum Mississippi, 1862–1870. In N. Beadie & K. Tolley (Eds.), Chartered schools: Two hundred years of independent academies in the United States, 1727–1925 (pp. 211–227). New York: Routledge.
- Span, C. M. (2002). I must learn now or not at all: Social and cultural capital in the educational initiatives of formerly enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862–1869. Journal of African American History, 87, 196–205.
- C. M., & Anderson, J. D. (2005). The quest for “book learning”: African American education in slavery and freedom. In A. Hornsby, Jr., D. P. Aldridge, & A. Hornsby (Eds.), A companion to African American history (pp. 295–311). New York: Blackwell.
- Washington, B. T. (1967). Up from slavery (Reprint). New York: Airmont. (Original work published 1901)
- Williams, H. A. (2005). Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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