Education of Slaves

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."

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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Law passed by South Carolina in 1740.

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.

(2) Law passed by Virginia in 1819.

That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, etc., in the night; or at any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly; and any justice of a county, etc., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, etc., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, etc, may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.

(3) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

My mistress took a fancy to me, and began to teach me some English words and phrases, for I only knew how to say "dis" and "dat," "den" and "dere," and a few such monosyllables. It is a saying among the masters, the bigger fool the better nigger. Hence all knowledge, except what pertains to work, is systematically kept from the field-slaves.

My mistress made me stand before her to learn from her how I was to take a message. "Now, Francis," she said, "I want to make you quite a ladies' man. You must always be very polite to the ladies. You must say, 'I will go and tell the ladies.'" I repeated some hundreds of times, "I will go and tell the ladies." After some days' training, she thought she had made me sufficiently perfect to deliver a message. "Francis!" "Yes, marm," I said. "Go and tell Mrs.---- that I shall feel obliged by her calling upon me at half-past twelve o'clock to-morrow." "Yes, marm," I said; and she made me repeat the message some dozens of times. When perfect, as she thought, away I went, repeating all the way, feel obliged by your calling upon her at half-past twelve; Missis will," etc., until I met a gentleman on the road who had seen and heard me repeating the words over and over again before I saw him. He called out, "Whom are you talking to?" I jumped, and every word jumped out of me, for I forgot it all. I ran back to my mistress and told her I had forgotten it, but did not tell her the reason why.

(4) Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave (1851)

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.

(5) Frederick Douglass, letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe (8th March, 1853)

You kindly informed me, when at your house a fortnight ago, that you designed to do something which should permanently contribute to the improvement and elevation of the free colored people in the United States. You especially expressed an interest in such of this class as had become free by their own exertions, and desired most of all to be of service to them. In what manner, and by what means you can assist this class most successfully, is the subject upon which you have done me the honor to ask my opinion.

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.

The argument in favor of an Industrial College (a college to be conducted by the best men, and the best workmen which the mechanic arts can afford; a college where colored youth can be instructed to use their hands, as well as their heads; where they can be put in possession of the means of getting a living whether their lot in after life may be cut among civilized or uncivilized men; whether they choose to stay here, or prefer to return to the land of their fathers) is briefly this: Prejudice against the free colored people in the United States has shown itself nowhere so invincible as among mechanics. The farmer and the professional man cherish no feeling so bitter as that cherished by these. The latter would starve us out of the country entirely. At this moment I can more easily get my son into a lawyer's office to study law than I can into a blacksmith's shop to blow the bellows and to wield the sledge-hammer.

(6) Mary Battey, letter, Andersonville (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. Whether this zeal will abate with time, is yet a question. I have a little fear that it may. Meanwhile it is well to "work while the day lasts." 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.

The night school - taught by Miss Root - numbers about forty, mostly men, earnest, determined, ambitious. One of them walks six miles and returns after the close of school, which is often as late as ten o'clock. One woman walks three miles, as do a number of the men.

On Sabbath mornings, at half-past nine, we open our Sabbath school, which is attended by about fifty men, women and children, who give willing, earnest attention to our instruction. The younger ones are given to the charge of "Uncle Charlie" - a good old negro who wants to do something to help. Miss Root takes the women, and leaves the men to my care. As they are unable to read, we take a text or passage of Scripture, enlarge upon and apply it as well as we are able, answering their questions, correcting erroneous opinions, extending their thoughts.

(7) On 11th November, 1871, in Columbus, Mississippi, Sarah Allen was interviewed by a Congress Committee inquiring into the 'Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States'.

Question: Please state your place of residence and occupation to the committee.

Sarah Allen: Geneseo, Henry County, Illinois. I have no occupation at home. I am teaching here.

Question: State whether you have been engaged in the business of teaching in this county.

Sarah Allen: In this county I have been teaching a few weeks.

Question: Were you engaged as a teacher of a school outside of Columbus at any time?

Sarah Allen: If you refer to my teaching school last spring, I taught in Monroe County. I was teaching at Cotton Gin Port, twelve miles northeast of Aberdeen.

Question: Were you teaching a white or colored school?

Sarah Allen: A colored school.

Question: You may state to the committee whether you were interrupted by any persons in your business.

Sarah Allen: I taught six weeks, until I think the 18th of March, when I was told to leave; warned to leave, between 1 and 2 o'clock at night by about fifty men, I think; they were disguised; there were but two that came into my room.

Question: Do you say they came into your room?

Sarah Allen: Between 1 and 2 o'clock at night I was wakened by a great noise around on the outside of the house. They told me to get up. I went to the window and asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted me to get a light and dress; that they wanted to talk to me; that they would not harm me. I said, "Very well," I would be ready in a few moments. I admitted them. The captain said, "If you will take a seat the lieutenant shall come into the room and the rest shall stay out." The lieutenant came in with a pistol in his hand. He sat down opposite the fireplace. The captain sat in the center of the room. There were eight or ten men stood inside the door, and the porch was full.

Question: What did they say to you?

Sarah Allen: They asked me my name and occupation, and where I came from, and what I was doing, and who I boarded with, and what my wages were. We talked about an hour on politics, mostly against Colonel Huggins and his whipping. He had been whipped about one week before that. They asked me if I had heard of it and what I thought of it; and also asked if I had heard that other teachers had been sent away, and what I intended to do. I told them it was a very short notice, and I did not know. They said they never gave a warning but once; that I was to understand it so. I told them I did. They said I should leave - I believe the lieutenant told me I should leave - Monday morning. That was Saturday evening, or Saturday night. The captain said he thought that would be rather hard; he would give me till Thursday morning to leave; that probably some one of them would be around. I told them. I would go, if it was possible to get away; the roads were very bad. I did not get away until the next Tuesday.

Question: Was there any threat made of what would be the consequence of your continuing to teach school?

Sarah Allen: No, sir.

Question: Further than the remark that they never gave a second notice?

Sarah Allen: Yes, sir; that was all.

Question: What did you infer from that?

Sarah Allen: Well, I supposed that they would, if I should stay and continue, take harsher means.

Question: Did you discontinue your school in consequence of this warning?

Sarah Allen: Yes, I did.

Question: After you had been teaching about six weeks?

Sarah Allen: I taught just six weeks.

Question: For how long a term had you been engaged as a teacher?

Sarah Allen: Four months.

Question: What wages were you receiving per month?

Sarah Allen: Seventy-five dollars.

Question: Did they say what their motive was for breaking up your school?

Sarah Allen: Yes. They did not want radicals there in the South; did not want northern people teaching there; they thought the colored people could educate themselves if they needed any education; they advised me to go home again.

Question: The men were all disguised that you saw?

Sarah Allen: Yes, sir.

Question: Can you give the committee a description of the disguises they wore?

Sarah Allen: They wore long white robes, a loose mask covered the face, trimmed with scarlet stripes. The lieutenant and captain had long horns on their head, projecting over the forehead; a sort of device in front - some sort of figure in front, and scarlet stripes.

Question: Did you recognize any one of the number?

Sarah Allen: I did not.

Question: You have not heard of any other visitation in that part of the country except there?

Sarah Allen: There was a teacher left Smithville the week before I did.

Question: A female teacher?

Sarah Allen: Yes, sir.

Question: Was she said to be warned off?

Sarah Allen: She heard they were coming there, and the man she was boarding with, who was one of the school directors, thought it was best for her to leave.

Question: Was she a northern woman?

Sarah Allen: Yes, sir.

Question: Have you heard of any other schools in Monroe County broken up by the same means?

Sarah Allen: Yes, sir; nearly all the schools in Monroe County were broken up in that term, with the exception of some in the larger places.