Slave Codes And Literacy Essay

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Slave codes were laws enacted by colonial and state legislatures in the American South limiting the rights of enslaved African Americans and authorizing the use of force in an attempt to keep slaves subservient to their White masters. Typically, slave codes included provisions making it illegal to teach literacy skills to slaves. The driving force behind the literacy prohibitions was a fear on the part of slave-owners that literate slaves could use the ability to write to either initiate revolts by communicating with fellow conspirators seeking to overthrow slavery, or at the least, create forged passes that would allow slaves to flee to other regions.

The colonial legislature of South Carolina enacted the first slave code in 1740 as a reaction to the Stono slave rebellion of the previous year. Among its many provisions, the code prohibited both teaching a slave to write and using a slave as a scribe or clerk. A violation of the literacy provision of the code brought a rather substantial fine of 100 pounds. The South Carolina statute became a model for the subsequent slave code enacted by the colony of Georgia in 1755 and then for state legislatures after the installation of new post–Revolutionary War governments.

Although they prohibited the teaching of writing, the early slave codes were silent about reading. A school for slaves opened in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1743, shortly after the prohibition against teaching slaves to write went into effect in the colony. Prominent men of South Carolina were financial backers of the school and, presumably, sent at least some of their own slaves to the missionary school where the Africans learned to read and were taught the catechism.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, three separate slave rebellions fueled the perception among Whites that literacy among Blacks, slave or free, could foster collaboration and coordination among those plotting to harm slaveowners. In the 1820s and 1830s, southern state legislatures, under the control of the planter ruling class, codified anew literacy restrictions aimed at Blacks.

In spite of legal restrictions, some slaves still learned to read and write through either their own efforts or with the help of sympathetic Whites who saw value in literacy. Nevertheless, historians estimate that at the time of the Civil War, less than 10 percent of southern Blacks were literate, greatly affecting both southern life and culture in the nineteenth century and future social and economic possibilities for the region.


  1. Cornelius, J. D. (1991). When I can read my title clear: Literacy, slavery, and religion in the antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  2. Monaghan, E. J. (2005). Literacy instruction and the enslaved. In Learning to read and write in colonial America (pp. 241–272). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  3. Webber, T. L. (1978). Deep like the rivers: Education in the slave quarter community, 1831–1865. New York: Norton.

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