Span_and_Anderson_The_Quest_for_Book_Learning

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 skills to resist enslavement and earn their freedom. To reiterate a previous contention, such ambitions for literacy — whether gained or not -— were passed down for generations until freedom universally came in 1865. Perhaps the most dramatic expression of enslaved African Americans’ great long— ing for education came after emancipation. For freedpeople, as for slaves, literacy and sehools Were equated with empowerment and freedom: they “represented the Keys of the Kingdom” (Genovese 1974: 565). Historian James 1). Anderson was correct in asserting that fieedpeople in general “emerged from Slavery with a strong belief in the desirability of learning to read and write" (Anderson 1988: 5): “This belief was expressed in the pride in which they talked of other ex-slaves who learned to read and write in slavery and in the esteem in which they held literate blacks” ( ibid: 5). The historiography of African American education following the Civil War strongly supports these arguments. Historians James I). Anderson (1988; 1995), Henry Bullock {1967), Ronald Butchart (1980), W. E. B. Du Bois (1897; 1935), THE QUEST FOR “BOOK LEARNING” 301 Herbert Gutman (2000}, Jacqueline Jones (1980), James L. Leloudis (1996), Robert (2. Morris (1982), Christopher M. Span (2001; 2002b), and Heather Williams (2002) have all documented through their research the connections that freed Afri— can Americans made between education and citizenship. Further, they have demon- strated how the efforts and educational enthusiasm of former slaves served as the catalyst to the South’s first comprehensive public school system. For buth individual and collective reasons, freed blacks sought an education be— cause it represented a previously prohibited means of control, empowerment, and autonomy, as well as a practical means of personal and professional improvement. Moreover, in freedom, as in slavery, the quest for learning was part and parcel of the larger struggle for real freedom and equality. It is difficult to overernphasize the enthusiasm of formerly enslaved Aliican Americans and the expectations they had of education and its usefulness in emanicipation. Practically every contemporary, fi'iend or foe, of the cit-slave witnessed their determination in acquiring an education for themselves and their children. “In its universality and intensity," one New England Freedmen Aid Society missionary recounted, “they [formerly enslaved African Amer icans] believe that reading and writing are to bring with them inestimable advan— tages” {Hemng 1906: 174). As in slavery, education was perceived as a means to progress and societal uplift: ex—slaves perceived hook learning as an investment, a passageway to a better day for themselves and their children. It was considered a priority, a necessary investment for citizenship and the overall advancement ofthc emergent cs-slave community. As mentioned, such aspiration for learning was a deeply entrenched cultural value in the African American experience and was virtually universal in the cit—slave com- munity. It sharply differed from the expectations that poor southern whites had of education and the emphasis they placed on it. Where poor whites, according to W. E. B. Du Bois, viewed schooling as a “luxury connected to wealth“ and did not demand an opportunity to acquire it, African Americans — both during, and after slavery demanded it. connccting education with freedom, social mobility, and self- snllicicncy. Du Bois concluded that formerly enslaved African Americans family “he- licved that education was a stepping—stone to wealth and respect, and that wealth. without education, crippled“ a person‘s prospects of attaining equality, self reliance, landownership, the vote, and full citizenship {Du Bois 1935: 641). Had he been aware of Du Bois‘s contention, Charles Whiteside most likely would have agreed. The very day \i-‘Inteside's owner informed him that he was free, he also informed him that his freedom was “essentially meaningless“ and that he “would always remain a slave” hccause he had “no education" [litwack 1998: 56}. “Education,” the former slaveowncr decreed, was “what makes a man free" (ihid: 56}. Impressed. but not discouraged, by the words of the man who had hitherto held him in hcmdagc, 's-\-’hiteside made up his mind. then and there, to insure that his children received the type of education he was systematically denied. He sent each of his 13 children to school, determined, as he said, “to make them free“ libid: 561. How enslaved African Americans acquired the skills of reading, and writing, with minimal guidance and under the constraints of American slavery, truly character— l/L'ti ability and determination to learn despite the odds against them. W’ith rm options for instruction, minimal resources — pencils, paper, books, and the like — and under the most constraining circumstances, numerous enslaved African Americans 302 CHRISTOPHER M. span AND JAMES B. ANDERSON haphazardly and defiantly learned to read and write. No matter how discouraging these conditions seemed, the situation was not entirely hopeless. As Carter G. Woodson pointed out: The ways in which slaves acquired knowledge are significant. Many picked it up here and there, some Followed occupations which were in themselves enlightening, and others learned from slaves whose attainments were unknown to their masters. Often influential White men taught Negroes not only the rudiments of education but almost anything they wanted to learn. Not a few slaves were instructed by the White children whom they accompanied to school. While attending ministers and officials whose work often lay open to their servants, many of the race learned by contact and observation. Shrch Negroes sometimes slipped stealthin into back streets, where they studied under a private teacher, or attended a school hidden from the zealous execution ot‘the law. (Woodson 1916: 125—6} How the notable Frederick Douglass learned to read and write as a slave during his childhood is an excellent illustration. At about the age of 10 he was taught by his mistress how to read and “in an incredibly short time“ Douglass “had mastered the alphabet and could Spell words of three or four letters" (Douglass 1881: 70). Soon thereafter, his master discovered the activities of his will: and Douglass, and brought them to a halt. Before Douglass, he scolded his wife stating, “ifyOu give a nigger an inch he will take an ell. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unlit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will ol‘his master, and learn to obey it” (ibid: 70). This outburst had a prolound effect on Douglass. He remarked: His iron sentences, cold and harsh, sunk like heavy weights deep into my heart, and stirred up within me a rebellion not soon to be allayed . . . he underrated my compre— hension, and had little idea of the use to which I was capable of putting the impressive lesson he was giving to his wife. He wanted me to be a slave; I had already voted against that on the home plantation of Col. Lloyd. That which he most loved I most hated; and the very determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance only rendered me the more resolute to seek intelligence. In learning to read, therefore, I am not sure that I do not owe quite as much to the opposition of my master as to the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress. (Douglass 1881: 70—1} Thenceforth, attempting to learn how to read and later write became an obsession for young Douglass. Filled With the determination to bec‘o‘me literate at any 605% and unable to rely anymore on his mistress as a potential resource, Douglass sought out differing avenues to develop his new ability. One opportunity that repeatedliI seemed available involved the support of his white plantation playmates. “I used to carry almost constantly a copy of Webster’s spelling—book in my pocket,” Douglass recalled, “and when sent on errands, or when play—time wasallowed me, I would step aside with my young fiiends and take a lesson in spelling” (Douglass 1881‘ _'5 74). Douglass would learn to write in much the same manner. While at work 0115' the docks, Douglass secretly sketched the various words he identified on the barfd’ CUTIE- " he loaded and in the evenings or on Sundays he WOuld coax his unsuspc white playmates into competitive games involving the alphabet and writing. “ 1 E '5 THE QUEST FOR “BOOK LEARNING” 303 Play-nudes for my teachers, fences and pavements for my copy—books, and chalk for my pen and ink,” Douglass proudly recollected, “I learned to write” (ibid: 36), Douglass’ informal educational attainment typified the earliest learning opportun- ides for the majority of enslaved African Americans who obtained some degree of literacy. Most accounts indicate that enslaved African Americans learned to read before the age of 12, usually with some assistance from whites, and well before they learned — if at all F to write. Learning to read before writing should not come as a surprise since writing required the mastery and acquisition of special equipment. As Cornelius deduced, “writing was harder to learn than reading, and presented the challenge offinding or making materials in a mostly rural society which had little use for theSe tools” (Cornelius 199.1: 61). Nonetheless, enslaved African Americans made the most of their chances to learn to read or write when such opportunities arose, whether at work or home, publicly or secretly. Future congressional senator Blanche K. Bruce was a great example. While enslaved, Bruce educated himself when .he was at work at a printer’s trade shop in Brunswick, Missouri (Woodson 1916: 128). Another was Benjamin Holmes. As an apprentice tailor in Charleston, South Carolina, Holmes “studied all the signs and names on the doors” of his employment (Cornelius 1991: 69). Thereafter, he would ask people to tell him — one or two at a time — the words he observed on the signs and/or doors. By the age of 12 he discovered that he could read newspapers. Another common characteristic associated with slave literacy was the exchanging of goods for instructional lessons. Many slave children, for example, bartered trin- kets, fruits, and other goods to their white peers to secure a rudimentary education. Young Richard Parker, for example, exchanged marbles to any youth willing to teach him the alphabet (Blassingame 1977: 465). Iames W. Sumlet of Norfolk, Virginia, obtained an element-an! education this way as well (Woodson 1916: 130). 'l‘abh Gross learned to read by promising his eight'year—old master an orange every time he taught him the alphabet {Blassingame 193W: 3474i]. Uncle Cepahs, “a slave of Parson Winslow of 'l‘cnnessee,” recalled how white children secretly taught him to read in exchange for food cooked for them by Dinah, Winslow’s cook {Albert lBQU: 126). Robert Adams acquired his first reading lessons in similar fashion. As a child “he would get all the nice fruit he could and battered it oil in the evening and on Sundays to any white child willing to teach him from a book he secretly possessed“ (Adams 1831: 9—10). His brother lohn Quincy Adams recalled that that was “the way many potirr slaves learned to read and write” before eman- cipation [,ibid: 10}. Virginia—born Louis Hughes was somewhat of an exception, Like Dt'iuglass, Hughes also recalled “learning oil the wall;11 however, he was not a child, but a young adult when he obtained his first reading lessons. Moreover, a fellow adult slave, Tom, who was the coachman for the plantation, taught him his first lessons. Tom secretly acquired his learning from some neighboring plasterers and workmen. According to Hughes, “they saw that he was so anxious to learn that they promised to teach him every evening if he would slip out to their house” {Hughes 1896: 100‘}. Hughes was also anxious to learn, but being a house servant could not get away as easily. 'l‘om recogniaed Hughes“ inconvenience and ambitions. He secretly taught Hughes by writing numerals and the alphabet on the side ofa barn for him to copy {ibid: 100]. These lessons lasted for months before the plantation overseers finally discovered 304 CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN AND mines n. ANDERSON anti put an end to them. lly this time Hughes had already obtain the rudiments of hook learning. The ingenious methods used by ambitious enslaved African Americans to acquire some degree of literacy are recognizable in other ways as well. In his autohiograpln- Lucius Holst-y recalled selling,r old rags for books, so many thal he was alile to buy five books: two Webster‘s blue-back speliers, a school dictionary, Milton's l’m'ndn‘r lmr, and the Ilihle. 'l‘hesc hooks “constituted his lilll stock ol‘literary possessionsz“ a library, boasted Holsey, “more precious than gold“ to him {Holsey 1898: 1?]. Like many others, Holsey acknowledged that some White children and an African American man taught him the alphabet, atter which: I fought my way unaided through the depths of In_\' ponderous lihrary. Day by day I took a leaf from one of the spelling hooks, and so Folded it that one or trio of the lessons were on the outside as if printed on a card. 'l‘liis I put in the pocket ol‘niy vest or coat, and When I was sitting on the carriage, walking the yard or streets, or usingr hot: or spade, or in the dining room, I would take out my spelling leaf, catch .i word and commit it to memory. When one side of the spelling leal' was finished hi‘ this process1 I would retold it again with a new lesson on the outside. When night came, I went to my little room, and with chips of rat pine, and pine roots . . . I \s'OuId kindle a little blaze in the fireplace and turn my head toward it while lying, flat on my back so as to get the most of the light on the. leaves ol‘ the hook . . . I reviewed the lessons of- the day from the unmaimcd [sic] book. By these means I learned to read and write a little in six iiionthS. Besides, I would catch words from the while people and retain them in memory until I could get to my dictionary. Then I would spell and define the words, until they became perfectly impressed upon my memory. illolsey 1898: l7—l8} Holsey was fortunate that it only took him six months to master the art of reading. For most literate enslaved African Americans, given their restricted circum- stances, such attainment was a laborious, extremely dangerous, and time-consuming proeeSS. For even the most determined slave, oftentimes it took years of clandestine self-instruction in order to comprehend the English written language well enough to claim the right of knowing how to read. The determination and raw intellectual abilities of Holsey and others, to acquire the rudiments of even an elementary education with so little time and guidance and under the stresses and penalties of slave life, demonstrated incontestably their impressive individual accOmplishinents. As one historian commented, “with fragmented time, few teacher guides, and limited vocabulary . . . [it is] no wonder it could take even a determined slaye years to read. Add the physical threats to other obstacles and the process becomes heroic" (Cornelius 1991:68} Some enslaved Afiican Americans, h0weyer, did nor have to go through the trouble of self-education in secrecy or in fear of severe punishment. According to historian John Hope Franklin (2000), schools for enslaved blacks are known to have existed — despite the law or public sentiment -— throughout the South. For example, the enslaved black “Patrick Snead of Savannah, Georgia was sent to a private. institu- tion until he could spell quite well and then to a Sunday—school for colored chil— dren” (Woodson 1916: 132). On some estates, slave owners actually helped African Americans to learn the written word. Reasons varied. W. S. Scarborough, the future president of “filberforce College, remembered in his slave childhood receiving 305 permission to attend a school in Bibb County, Georgia (Simmons 1887: 41]). l. T. Montgomery, later the founder of Mound Bayou, Mississippi — the first black settlement established in the state — was instructed by his owner, Joseph Davis, in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Joseph and his brother Jefferson Davis attempted to train their slaves to be the accountants of the plantation (Woodson 1916: 131). Aaron Robinson recalled how his owner actually required his own children to teach Robinson how to read, so that he could avoid taking them rabbit hunting (Blassingame 1977: 498). Mississippi native Smart Walker learned to read from his masrer’s son, who had asked his father if he could teach Walker his school lessons {ibid: 517). Frederick Law Olmsted, while touring Mississippi in 1852, found a group of literate enslaved Afi'ican Americans, all owned by a person entirely illiterate. The slave owner, according to Olmsted, took great pride in possessing such “loyal, capable, and intelligent Negroes” (Woodson 1916: 128). Ali the same, the most impressive history of African Americans attempting to educate themselves came after emancipation. Between 1863 and 1870, countless former slaves would rush to the schoolhouse in hopes of learning how to read and write. 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 ofthc 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” (Washington l90l: 30—] i. Most attended what were called freedmen schools, started by northern teachers who moved south to assist fi'eedpeople in their transition from slaves to citizens. By 1870, more than 9,500 teachers, with the assistance of the Bureau of Refugees. Freedman, and Abandoned Lands ~ a governmental agency commonly referred to as the Freedmcn’s Bureau — taught nearly 250,000 pupils in over 4,300 schools. Another type of grassroots school that arose in the earliest emancipation years was what the late historian Herbert Gutman {2000} called “schools ofli'cedom.” “Preev dom schools" were established, financed, and maintained by Sonnet slaves, with only the minimal assistance of others. These virtually self-sulhcient schools arose in every locale follmving the Civil War and historians are finally giving them the attention they deserve (Anderson 1988 and 1995; Gutman 2000; Span 20023 and 2002b; Williams 2002). They began in the South’s most prominent cities — Charleston, Nashville, Richmond, New Orleans, Savannah, and Little Rock a as well as in the backwoods and on the most secluded cotton and tobacco plantations, and the first opened well before the outcome of the Civil War was determined. One of the first schools for the benefit of southern black Ii'eedmen opened in Alexandria. Virginia, during the (livil War. On September 1, 1861, Mary Chase and another ti'eedwoman opened a pay school for wartime runaways. Less than a month later, “one of them joined Mrs. Mary Smith Peake, daughter of an English father and a free black woman who had taught at an antebellum Hampton, Virginia st'liotil" {Gutman 2000: 389i. Together they opened a second school for contrabands .u Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The actions ol‘ these three black women preceded those of northern white. missionaries by nearly a year. In fact, by the time northern white. teachers started teaching riteedpeople in Virginia, there were already three more schtmls in Alexandria opened by African Americans. The Frecdmeli's Inquiry 306 (IHRIS‘l‘tIH’IIER M. SPAN AND ramss n. aNtmnsoN (Lorna-fission, an agency established by President Lincoln to investigate the needs of former slaves, was quick to note the pro—activities of I‘reed blacks in Alexandria. “( )ne ofthe first acts of the ncgroes when they found themselves free," the commis— sion declared, “was to establish schools at their own expense” {National Freedmcn‘s Aid Union 1867‘. 4}. Union Army Lieutenant C. B. \-Viltit‘.t‘ was astonished at the pace at which former slaves and their children learned in these grassroots Virginia schools. “Scarcely one could be found who could read as they came in,“ Wilder reported. “Now very few but can read some, and all are getting books and with or without teachers are striving to learn themselves and one another” (Facts Homeroom the FI‘L’L’dfi'lb'i'J 1863: 5). By 1867, two years after the Civil War, the. push tor school- ing among freedpeople in Virginia was truly a spectacle. One white. Virginian promptly recognized this upon his visit to a school attended by free and freed black children in Norfolk. “We cannot express,“ he said, “our satisfaction more fully than by saying that we were literally astonished at the display of intelligence by the pupils. Abstruse questions in arithmetic were promptly answered, diflicult problems solved, the. read- ing beautifully rhetorical, and the singing, charming." Given the pace of learning amng former slave children, the onlooker concluded: ~‘more encouragement tnust be given by our city council to our public schools to prevent white children from being, outstripped in the race for intelligence. by their sable competitors” {Alvord 186?: 15). Around the time that missionary schools for freedpeople arose in Virginia in 1.862, it was reported by Union Army officials that free and contraband blacks in Nashville, Tennessee, had already independently established a number ofschools for more than 800 children. The primary impetus for this educational push in Nashville came from ex‘slaves themselves and hem Daniel Watkins, an antebellum fi'ee black who had maintained, for nearly a decade, a school for the children of free blacks. By summer’s end 1864, several schools managed and taught by African Americans in Nashville had “sprung up,” and black children outnumbered white children in school attendance (Gutman 2000: 3904). By 1869, freed African Americans in '1"ennessee had established a total of 22 private schools throughout the state and were financially assisting northern teachers and the Freedmen’s Bureau in maintain— ing 59 orhet schools. As the superintendent of education for Tennessee’s l’reedpeople C. F... Compton observed, the private schools established were “wholly supported by the freedmen withorrt any aid from the. bureau, State, or from benevolent societies" (Alvord 1869: 62). Equally impressive efforts were seen elsewhere, particularly in Baltimore, Washing- ton, DC, and Little Rock, Arkansas. By winter 1865, the Society of Friends — based in Philadelphia n and the New York-based American Missionary Association (AMA), in collaboration with Baltimore blacks, had established 16 schools with nearly 2,000 pupils. The city‘s black population, however, promoted the push for schools even further and independendy established and managed seven more schools for freed— people. A capstone to these efforts came in Ianuary 1866, when freeborn and formerly enslaved African Americans in Maryland hosted a state convention in Baltimore to assess and address their overall needs. An advisory board convened and urged each and every Maryland black to “use every exertion to contradict the predictions of [their] enemies, which were uttered previous to the emancipation of the States that if the slaves were freed they would become a pest to society” {boner and Walker THE QUEST FOR “BOOK LEARNING“ 307 i986: 228). They advised formerly enslaved African Americans to feel and act as if they were free and independent, to be industrious, to purchase land, and to acquire kn education. Specifically, the assembly advised black Marylanders to educate their thjldren for equality, self-sufficiency, and citizenship. “Educate your children and 53""; them trades, thereby making them equal for any position in life, for if ever we are raised to the elevated summit in life for which we strive, it must be done by um- own industry and exertion . . . No one can do it for us,” they concluded (ibid: 327—8). Several schools in and around Washington DC were established with similar vigor by newly emancipated blacks. For example, the Afiican Civilization Society of New fork, founded in 1858 to promote colonization by African Americans in Africa, reconstituted itselt‘during the Civil War as a freedmen’s aid society. Between 1864 and 1867, with the help of former slaves, the organization opened six schools for African Americans. Freeborn Attican American Catholics of the Blessed Martin de Port-es parish in the nation’s capital also founded five schools for freedpeople; and 22 African Americans individually started private schools for former slaves and other blacks during the 1860s (McPherson 1965). In Little Rock, Arkansas, freed African Americans — in addition to establishing private schools For their children — formed the Freedmcn’s School Society in March 1865, in order to collect monies for educational purposes. “By their own exertions,” as reported by one Union Army oflicial, freedpeople in Arkansas “made the city schools free for the rest of the year,” an astonishing that considering the relative impoverishment of a people just removed from enslavement {McPherson I965: 142). By November 1865, many of these same li'eed blacks and others rectonvened in Little Rock to demand that state legislators acknowledge them as citizens. They also appealed to elected representatives to provide a system of schools for their children. “We do most earnestly desire and pray,” their request began: That you clothe us with the power of self protection, by giving us our equality before the law and the right ofsutl‘rage, so we may become berm fidr citizens of the State in which we live . _ . Believing, as we do, that we are destined in the Future, as in the past, to cultivate your cotton fields, we claim for Arkansas the first to deal justly and equit- ably for her laborers . . . That we are the substrata, the foundation on which the future power and wealth of the State of Arkansas must be built . _ . we respectiitlly ask the llfigislaturc to provide For the education ol‘our children. (Foncr and Walker 1986: 194] Amid this mass movement for literacy and schools, lollovving the end of slavery, few missionary or military personalities from the North recognized and appreciated the educational zeal of the South’s freedpeople better than the superintendent of education for the Freedmen‘s Bureau, John W. Alvord. Alvord was appointed to this commission in luly 1865 and made it his first priority to tour the region to assess its needs. He observed firsthand the strides and sacrifices Former slaves had made to acquire an education, even it it was only rudimentary instruction. Everywhere. Alvord traveled he discovered, with surprise, “a class of schools” that he identified as “native schools.“ These independent or sell-sustaining schools were managed and “taught by colored people, rude and imperfect, but still groups ol‘ peoples, old and young, trying to learn” [original emphasis] (Alvord 1866: 8). In his first of ten 303 CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN AND IAMES D. ANDERSON semi—annual reports, Alvord estimated that at least 500 of these independent black schools existed in the South, the vast majority never before visited by a white. person, Flabbergasted by the educational motivation and pro—activities of the South’s freedpeople, Alvord made it a point to pen his observations. He wrote, “thrOughout the entire south an effort is being made by the colored people to educate. themselves . . {and} in the absence of other teachings they are. determined to be self—taught" iibid: llll. What should be apparcnl in this overview of the history of African American education before and after slavery is the resilience and determination of a people to become literate, as part of a long historical struggle against slaver and racism, in pursuit of freedom and equality. The desire for literacy was in itself an act of resistance During slavery, the quest for book learning was a direct challenge to the repressive law and social customs that strove to keep African Americans —- enslaved or free -— illiterate, for literacy was equated with empowerment and freedom from enslavemeut. Such appreciation for the written word was passed down for genera— tions in the slave community until slavery’s abolition. After slavenr, this cultural appreciation for book learning among freed southern blacks flourished and took on new forms. As an ideal, literacy was srill equated with freedom, but now 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. The value that Attic-an Americans placed on learning and self—imptovemcnt, dis— tinctive as it was, did not necessarily have a natural or “instinctive” cause. However, in the context of slavery and racism, literacy — and the way they acquired it — inevitably developed the way they thought about education. That experience for slaves and free persons of color was vastly different in most respects from all other classes of American citizens, both “native” whites and immigrants. During the dec— ades before the Civil War, slaves and free blacks in the South lived in a society in which literacy was forbidden to them by law and custom; but literacy symbolized freedom and it contradicted the condition of slavery and servitude. At the. dawn of the Civil War about four million enslaved African Americans lived in a society where. they could be whipped, maimed, or killed for the pursuit oflearning. This repression is recorded vividly in the autobiographies and narratives of slaves. Slaves everywhere understood the penalties and extreme difficulties in the pursuit of education as further forms of oppression. “There is one sin that slavery committed against me,” professed one former slave, “which I will never forgive. lt robbed me of my educa— tion” (Anderson 1.988: 5). Emancipation released an cx—slave class whose parents, grandparents, and great—grandparents viewed reading and Writing as both a chal— lenge to oppression and an expression of freedom. One of the first schools {minded by slaves at the onset of the Civil War was established in New Orleans in 1860. They named it the “Pioneer School of Freedom.” The very naming of this school epitom— ized African Americans‘ belief in education as a means to liberation. The descendants of both slaves and free persons of color inherited a distinctive orientation toward learning that made education inseparable from the struggle for freedom. This heritage is expressed in the struggle of each generation since the post— emaneiparion period and has persisted into our own present. The symbolic continu— ity between the “Pionecr School ofI-‘reedom” of 1860 and the “h-lississippi Freedom Schools” of die £9605 represents a long—Standing and indivisible relationship be— THE QUEST FoR “BOOK LEARNING" 309 tween the quest for book learning and the quest for freedom in the African Amer— ican experience. In vita] respects, education was viewed as the first act of resistance. “Get an education, boy,” Afi‘ican American grandmothers often said, “because that‘s the one thing that whites can’t take away from you” (Patterson 2001: .txiv). BIBLIOGRAPHY Works Cited Adams, Iohn Quincyr (1872) Narrative oftbe Life offabtt Quincy Adams, when in Slavery, and New ti! a Freeman. Harrisburg, PA: Sieg. Albert, Octavia V. Rogers (1890) The Home tif'Bandttge, or (Tharttitre Brooks and Other Slaves Ortéginai tmd Life-Like, as "they Appeared in the 0M Ptantattari tmd City Slave Life; Together with Pen-Picture: of the Peculiar lmts‘mtton with Sight: and Insight: into 'Hm'r New Reta- tt'tmt ttt Freedmert, Freemert, and Citizens. New York: Hunt 8; liaton. Alvord, Iohn (1866) First Semi—Artth Report rm smut; fiir Freedman, famtmjr I, 1306. 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