In the 18th century there were no schools in the southern states of America that admitted black children to its free public schools. Fearing that black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system whites in the Deep South passed laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them. For example, in 1740 South Carolina passed the following legislation: "Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money."
Some brave teachers such as John Chavis in Rayleigh, North Carolina, ran secret night schools. Teachers found educating black children would be run out of town. Margaret Douglass, who was caught teaching black children in Norfolk, Virginia, was convicted and imprisoned for her actions.
Henry Bibb, a slave in Shelby County, Kentucky, recalled in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave: "Slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds. There was a Miss Davies, a poor white girl, who offered to teach a Sabbath School for the slaves. Books were supplied and she started the school; but the news got to our owners that she was teaching us to read. This caused quite an excitement in the neighbourhood. Patrols were appointed to go and break it up the next Sabbath."
The situation was better in the North and the first African Free School was opened in New York City in 1787. The school's mission was to educate black children to take their place as equals to white American citizens. It began as a single-room schoolhouse with about forty students, the majority of whom were the children of slaves. This school and six others in the city began receiving public funding in 1824. People who graduated from these schools included Henry Highland Garnet and Ira Aldridge.
When Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, opened a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, attempts were made by local white people to burn the building down. Despite attempts to prevent the school receiving essential supplies, Crandall school continued and began to attract girls from Boston and Philadelphia. The local authorities then began using a vagrancy law against these students. These girls could now be given ten lashes of the whip for attending the school. William Lloyd Garrison reported the case in the Liberator and with the support of the Anti-Slavery Society Crandall continued to run the school.
In 1849 Charles Sumner helped Sarah C. Roberts to sue the city of Boston for refusing to admit black children to its schools. Their case was lost but in 1855 the Massachusetts Legislature changed its policy and declared that "no person shall be excluded from a Public School on account of race, colour or prejudice."
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
Frederick Douglass was a strong advocate of black education. He wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853: "I assert then that poverty, ignorance, and degradation are the combined evils; or in other words, these constitute the social disease of the free colored people of the United States. To deliver them from this triple malady, is to improve and elevate them, by which I mean simply to put them on an equal footing with their white fellow countrymen in the sacred right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am for no fancied or artificial elevation, but only ask fair play. How shall this be obtained? I answer, first, not by establishing for our use high schools and colleges. Such institutions are, in my judgment, beyond our immediate occasions and are not adapted to our present most pressing wants. What can be done to improve the condition of the free people of color in the United States? The plan which I humbly submit in answer to this inquiry (and in the hope that it may find favor with you, and with the many friends of humanity who honor, love, and co-operate with you) is the establishment in Rochester, or in some other part of the United States equally favorable to such an enterprise, of an Industrial College in which shall be taught several important branches of the mechanic arts."
Mary Battey, created a school for black people in Andersonville. She wrote in December, 1866: "Our school begun - in spite of threatenings from the whites, and the consequent fear of the blacks - with twenty-seven pupils, four only of whom could read, even the simplest words. At the end of six weeks, we have enrolled eighty-five names, with but fifteen unable to read. In seven years teaching at the North, I have not seen a parallel to their appetite for learning, and their active progress... Their spirit now may be estimated somewhat, when I tell you that three walk a distance of four miles, each morning, to return after the five hours session. Several come three miles, and quite a number from two and two-and-a-half miles."