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Span_and_Anderson_The_Quest_for_Book_Learning - A COMPANION...

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Unformatted text preview: A COMPANION TO AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY Edited by Alton Hornsby, Ir Delores P. Aldridge Editorial Associat: Angela M. Hornsby Editorial Am»; (I) Ems: 200 S“ CHAirIgsR SEVENTEEN The Quest for “Book Learning”: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN AND [AMES D. ANDERSON Education has always been a core value in the African American experience. As an idea], it has historically been equated with freedom and empowerment, and has served as a strategy to combat discrimination, exclusion, slavery, segregation, and other systemic forms of oppression. The history of education in the African Amer— ican experience is one of unremitting struggle and perseverance; it is a history that details the determination of a people to use schools and knowiedge for liberation and inclusion in the American social order. The collective strivings and educational history of African Americans in the South before and after cnslayemcnt epitomize this contention. 'l'lieir quest for book learning is arguably one of the better illustra- tions of their long, struggle to allirm their humanity and to persevere amid overtly oppressive and dcltumanizing conditions. This chapter traces that educational his— tory. It highlights how the law and societal conditions shaped some ofthe eariiest educational opportunities of African Americans, how historians have chronicled and analyzed this history, and how African Americans — li‘et'born, ntanttmitted. ensiaved, litgitive, freed. and otherwise — attetttpted to obtain an education before and after the Civil war. In the Ali'ican American experience, the quest to acquire book learning for libera— tioti began the day the first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1019. These lirst Africans and their descendants learned early on that literacy and knowledge. of English language, law. and custom were absolutely necessary in a slaye-sanctioning society where freedom, indentured servitude. and enslavement were predicated on matters ol‘ contract law, property, literacy, and conversion to Christianity. One classic example of the importance of understanding the written word was Anthony Johnson, an enslaved African brought to Virginia in 1621. According to ship records, Iohnson‘s name upon arrival on Virginia’s eastern shores was “g—‘intonio the Negro.” and historians who have studied his life agree that he arrived not as an indentured servant. bttt as a slave tBreen and lnnes 1980). liven so, within the next twenty years Johnson would purchase his own freedom and become a significant landowner. He would frequently use the court in colonial 296 CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN AND JAMES u. ANDERSON Virginia to protect his propertyr and insure that his wife and daughters were not classified as tithabie -~ that is, obliged to pay taxes. In addition, Iohnson would have all his children baptized because he was aware ot‘a Virginia statute that did not allow Christians to be. enslaved. Whether lohnson became. literate — meaning, he could read and write in the English language -— is not apparent from the historical record. \Vhat is obvious, however, is Johnson‘s recognition of the importance of learning and self-improvemr-nt for the protection of his family, understanding the system of taxation, acquiring.r and protecting, his property and investments. and ultimately tint his Freedom. Such knowledge and respect For literacy as a way of liberation and protection — in a society that was increasineg enslaving and segregating, people on the basis of skin color — was passed down generation to generation, and became a widespread cultural value among African Americans by the American Revolution. NiItu-‘ithstandinu, this cultural appreciation for learning arose concomitantly with a series of anti-iiteracy laws aimed to deny African Americans — enslaved or tree — access to an education. Nearly every American colony, and later state, prohibited or stridentl}r restricted teaching free and enslaVed African Americans in the South to read or write. South Carolina was the first. As early as 1740, the coionv enacted a law that prohibited any person from teaching. or causing a slave to be taught to read or write tR-ai‘tel 1998'. xiii). Arguably, this statute was in response to the increased teaching of slaves by Christian ministers. The first school established for enslaved African Americans by South Carolin-.1 parishioners was in 1695 at Goose (lreek Parish in Charleston. Believing that all children ot‘God should be baptized and believing that literacy was a prerequisite to baptism, the Society,r for the Propagation of the. Gospel trained thousands of enslaer African Americans in the rudiments of Christian principles and literacy, not iust in South Carolina, but in Virginia, North Carolina, and hints-'- land as well. Fearing baptism equated manumission, and that time spent learning catechism meant time away from plantation Work. South (Iarolina slaveholders pres- sured the colony’s governing body to pass a law that made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. Thirty years later, colonial Georgia follou-‘ed South ('Jarolina‘s precedent and enacted similar legislation that forbade the teaching of slaves to read or write [Cornelius 1991: 18). Restrictions on r‘u‘t'ican American literacy grew worse during the antebellum era. As noted bv one historian, “local ordinances supplemented state laws, and in some places it became a crime merer to sell writing materials” to enslaved African Amer- icans or even establish a school for Free blacks ((ienovese 1974: 562}. The laws against teaching enslaved African Americans to read and write during die antebellum era grew out of a variety of fears and concerns, the mosr straightforward being [118 use of literacy as a means to freedom {such as the Forging ofpasses for escape). BY 1830, the state of Georgia imposed lines, public whippings, and/or imprisonments to anyone caught teaching enslaved or free African Americans. In that same year. North Carolina and Louisiana also entorced such punishments on persons willing to teach the rudiments ot‘iiteracy to enslaved-African Americans. In its 1830—1 legiS' lative sessions, Virginia provided penalties for reaching enslaved blacks to read 01’ write. In 1832, Alabama’s Digest of Laws prohibited under fine the teaching of enslaved African Americans; its legislation arose from the panic tollowing thc Nat Turner revolt in Southampton, Virginia. In 1834. South Carolina respondCd 297 similarly, and revised its 1740 statute to penalize all persons who taught Afi'ican Americans, even freeborn blacks, how to read or write. Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee never legally forbade the teaching of enslaved African Americans, but public opinion againsr 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. Correspondingly, 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 learn— ing the written word (Cornelius 1991: 32—3). Local sentiment served as an additional impediment to becoming literate during the antebellum era. Proslavery ideologues assumed only “madmen would risk having their slaves read” or mingle with literate free blacks (Genovese 1974: 561). Most believed that slaves should receive instruction only in that which would qualify them for their “particular station” in life. These sentiments were ingrained points of view by the 18405, and they complemented the growing number of laws banning or restricting African American literacy in the antebellum South. Similarly, these views served as a rationale for the continued maintenance of hereditary slavery and the denial of civil and political rights to free African Americans in a democratic society. They also became a “self-fiilfilling prophecy” for the pseudo—science of the day, which saw African Americans as genetically inferior and by their nature incapable of learning. Testimony by antebellum African Americans themselves shows that the law, while , . . I n .l r\r\l1nriflfl Sfii‘i'fli’i’ifi 1t airu uppuaiuui‘i restrictive, was less- ot‘a prauieni than loca . slaveholders alike, literacy was equated with empowerment and freedom. Enslaved black Charles Ball was certain that slaveholders were always “careful to prevent the slaves from learning to read,” because “They fear that they {the slaves] may be imbibed with the notions of equality and liberty” from such teaching (Ball 1837: 164). After he escaped from slavery, Frederick Douglass oflered a similar assessment. He reasoned thus: It is perfectly well understood at the south, that to educate a slave is to make him discontented with slavery. and to invest him with a power which shall open to hint the treasures of freedom; and since the object of the slaveholder is to maintain complete authority over his slave, his constant vigiiance is exercised to prevent everything which militates against, or endangers, the stability of his authority. Education being among the menacing influences, and. perhaps, the most dangerous, is, therefore, the most cautiously guarded against. [Douglass 1855: 432) Many enslaved African Americans knew firsthand the horrors that awaited a slave able to obtain some book learning. As a child during slavery, William Heard person— ally witnessed the punishment inflicted on a slave who secretly learned the rudiments of literacy. Heard starkly remembered that “any slave caught writing suffered the penalty of having his forefinger cut from his right hand” (Heard 1924: 31). Disfig— urement 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 Iurdon had similar recollections. “Ef us tried to learn to read or write,“ she. recalled, 398 ttiiais'roi't-nia .\l_ srax .wn [ants o. ANDERSON “dey would cut your forefingers 01f” {:Rawick 1972: 14}. Correspondingly, Arnold Gtagston of Macon County, Kentucky remembered when his master suspected his slaves of learning to read and write he would call them to the big house. He continued, “if we told him we had been learnin’ to read, he would beat the day— lights out of its“ {Irons 2002: 1 }. Still, as historian Janet Duitslnan Cornelius stated. “despite the dangers and difficulties, thousands of slaves learned to read and write in the antebellum South’1 {Cornelius 1983: 1711. Free blacks in the South desiring a formal education also faced challenges. Their very existence proved to be an anomaly in a nation premised upon a white supremacist ideology and the hereditary and lifelong enslai-‘ement of people of African descent. In some locales, free blacks barely maintained a quasi—free status and, consequently, fared little better than their enslaved brethren. Such fate was all too familiar to the Reverend William Troy, who left his birth state for Canada when he and his family could no longer endure life in the United States. Born free in Essex County, Virginia, Troy recalled the immense difficulty he had in procuring an education for himself and his family because ofthe strict legal and customary proscriptions against free persons of color. “Personally, I have suffered on account of my color in regard to education. I was not allowed to go to school publicly, had to learn pri- vately . . . Further, I could not educate my children there [Virginia], and make them feel as women and men ought — for, under those oppressive laws, they would feel a degradation nor intended by Hint who made of one blood all the people of the earth” (Drew 1856: 355). Though they never met, Thomas Hedgebeth, a freeborn black from Halifax County, North Carolina, could easily understand Troy‘s frustra- tion and his migration to Canada. He wrote: “The law there does not favor colored people . . . A frec~born man in North Carolina is as much oppressed, in one sense, as the slave. I was not allowed to go to school . . . and I think it an outragetms sin and shame, that a free colored man could not be taught“ (ibid: 276). A Review of the Historiography of African American Education before and after the Civil War Historians who have studied the specifics of the mass movement for book learning and schooling in the South before and after the Civil War agree that African Ameri— cans everywhere considered education a paramount and invaluable acquisition. The standard histories on African American education document educational norms and values among antebellum and postbellum southern blacks that are complex, adapt— ive, and extremely supportive of learning and self—improvement. Still, hisrorians debate the extent of learning African Americans actually received during these eras and what it was that motivated both free and enslaved (soon thereafter, fi'eed) blacks to seek out book learning in a society that aimed to keep them illiterate. This is especially true of historical analysis concerning slave literacy. For nearly a century historians have debated the approximate percentage of literate slaves in the antebel— lum era. Carter G. Woodson initiated the debate in 1916. He figured that at least 10 percent of enslaved African Americans “had the rudiments of education in 1860” (Woodson 1916: 139). “But the proportion," he concluded “was much less than it was near the close of the era of better beginnings about 1825” (ibid: 139). Woodson a. . 0an 5 percent of enslaved African ' emancipatitm (Du Bois 1935: 638). Du Bois’ assessment was drawn primarily from his considerations of the educational and governmental activities of literate freedmen -. attained these skills post-1825. estimated that slave literacy rates declined 'scries 0 THE QUEST FOR “BOOK LEARNING“ 29‘) by almost half after the 1820s, given the f strict legal measures aimed at deterring the teaching of enslaved African Nearly two decades after Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois estimated that Americans. Americans in the South were literate prior to in the first decade after the Civil War. Eugene Genovese in his seminal publication, Rail. Ionian, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, took the middle ground on the debate. While he agreed that Du Bois’s 5 percent estimate was “entirely plausible,” he was also quick to comment that this approximation “may even be too low” (Genovese 1974: 563). What was apparent to Genovese from the historical record was the fact that throughout the South “slaveholders, travelers, and eat-slaves agreed that many plantations had one or more literate slaves” (ibid: 563). This fact alone served as the foundation for Genovese’s claim that literacy was an ever-present feature in the antebellum slave community. -Historian Ianet Duitsma‘n Cornelius offered her own assessment on the extent of slave literacy during the antebellum era, and she supported Woodson’s higher esti— mate. Cornelius reviewed the testimony of eat—slaves interviewed between 1936 and 1938 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and over 200 autobiographical narratives of formerly enslaved African Americans. In her book, When I Can Read My Title Clem, Cornelius concluded that more enslaved African Americans learned to read and/or write after 1825 than Woodson or Du Bois could have known (Cornelius 1991). At least 5 percent of the err—slaves interviewed by the VVPA explic- itly stated that they learned to read and / or write during enslavement. Given the fact that these interviews were conducted approxi ater 65 years after slavery’s abolition, virtually every eat—slave professing their ability to read and/or write had to have Notwithstanding, Cornelius is correct in forewarning her readers that as in other cultures “there can never be exact measurements of the extent of literacy among enslaved African ' reasons for the uncertainty has already been alluded to throughout this essay: “Nei— ther slaves not those slaveholders and others who taught them could proclaim their activities safely” or publicly without the possibility of punishment (Cornelius 1983: 173.) Still, historians tend to agree on the motivations of slaves to become literate. Enslaved African Americans who learned to read and/or write “gained privacy, leisure time, and mobility. A few wrote their own passes and escaped from slavery. Literate slaves also taught others and served as a conduit for information within a slave communication network. Some were even able to capitalize on their skills in literacy as a starting point for leadership careers after slavery ended” (Cornelius 1983: 171 ). Most historians are of the same opinion that learning to read and write reinforced an image of self—worth and community empowerment among enslaved African Americans and that literacy in itself was the first step to freedom. As one historian inferred, the acquisition of literacy in the slave community was “a com— munal act” and “a political demonstration of resistance to oppression and of self— determination for the black community. . . through literacy the slave could obtain skills valuable in the white world . . . and could use those skills for special privileges or to gain freedom” (Cornelius 1991: 3). Thomas Webber‘s classic, Deep Like the 300 CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN AND JAMES n. ANDERSON Riven:- Edmritrt'rm in the Slave Quarter Community. {831—1865, which documeniet' the cultural and informal education ot‘slaves during the antebellum era, offered ar equally interesting perspective. Webber reasoned that a slave who could read was .' very important person in the slave community. Webber adamantly stressed: “Not only could such persons keep other slaves abreast of the news, write them passes and read to them straight from the Bible, but they disproved the racist notior promulgated by whites that blacks were incapable ot‘such learning" (Webber 1978 136}. James Olney argued that enslaved Ali‘ican Americans viewed literacy as a “mech- anism tor torniing an identity;” its acquisition confirmed their humanity and gavt hope to the possibility of slaves obtaining freedom, even citizenship in American society. through the written word {Oltiey 1985: 1'53}. To historian V. l‘. Franklin. literacy signified an additional skill to protect and assist enslaved African Americam in surviving the immeasurable. vices of American slavery. “Education and literacy," Stated Franklin, “were greatly valued among Afro—Americans enslaved in the United States because they saw in their day—to—day experiences — ti‘oni one generation to the next — that knowledge and information helped one to survive in a hostile environ— ment” (Franklin 1984: 164}. Accordingly, enslaved African Americans considered reading and writing as necessary skills for enduring and possibly escaping enslave I'l'lCnl'. Research by Ivan MclJougle on runaway slaves strongly supports the contention that enslaved African Americans attempted to use their secretly—gained understand- ing of the written word to earn their freedom. McDougle documented that 71 ol the 350 advertised runaways in antebellum Kentucky, 20.2 percent, were listed as being able to read, and 37 or 10.5 percent were also reported as being able to write lMcDougle 1918: 289). Arguably, the high percentage of literate runaway slaves in Kentucky may have existed because there was nor a law in Kentucky prohibiting the teaching ot‘ slaves. Similarly, almost 9 percent of the 625 runaway slaves intendewed in William Still‘s The Undetymnnd Railroad (approximately 56 escapees) were re» corded as learning how to read and/or write while enslaved (Still 1872). While these figures may be perceived as low or insignificant in the greater analysis, they serve. as excellent examples of literate African Americans in the antebellum slave community. Moreover, they illustrate that enslaved African Americans desired —— and sometimes used — these ski...
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