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Slavery and the Making of AmericaPhoto of African-American children reading
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, & Culture
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Music in Slave Life Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Education, Arts, & Culture
Education, Arts, & Culture
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Like black musicians and singers, slaves who could read and write were considered esteemed members of the slave community. Concerned that literate slaves would forge passes or convince other slaves to revolt, Southern slaveholders generally opposed slave literacy. In 1740 South Carolina enacted another response to the events that occurred at Stono by passing one of the earliest laws prohibiting teaching a slave to read or write. In other parts of the South the mid-eighteenth century saw an expansion of earlier laws forbidding the education of slaves. Still, there was some tolerance for slave education among certain groups in the South. In 1743, for instance, Anglican ministers established a school for slaves in South Carolina. For over twenty years the school offered instruction in Christian religion and education under the guidance of a slave schoolmaster.

Photo of two women reading
Two women reading. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
In the absence of formal education, slaves in both the rural and urban South often found alternative paths to learning. On plantations the pursuit of education became a communal effort -- slaves learned from parents, spouses, family members, and fellow slaves and some were even personally instructed by their masters or hired tutors. Slaveholders were motivated by Christian convictions to enable Bible-reading among slaves and even established informal plantation schools on occasion in part because of slaveholders' practical need for literate slaves to perform tasks such as record-keeping.

Depiction of the Misses Cooke's school room
The Misses Cooke's school room. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
In the North, where black education was not forbidden, African-Americans had greater access to formal schooling and were more likely to have basic reading and writing skills than Southern blacks. Quakers played an important part elevating literacy rates among Northern blacks by rigorously promoting education programs in the years before and after the Revolutionary War. By 1860, less than eight percent of Black Bostonians were illiterate, while only an estimated five percent of the overall African-American population could read. Of course, the right to literacy did not ensure instruction. In the antebellum North, black schools struggled to stay afloat under constant financial hardship and lack of white support.

In both the pre-abolition North and the antebellum South, labor demands made it difficult for slave children to engage in extensive learning or to attend school consistently. In addition, white teachers usually offered restricted curricula deemed appropriate for slaves. Despite such impediments, enslaved people and free blacks demonstrated their determination and ability to learn as well as an understanding of the opportunities opened up by education. During the nineteenth century a number of former slaves published narratives detailing their experiences in bondage. Although some of these were dictated, others were actually written by ex-slaves. With these narratives, blacks had found a way to generate support for abolitionism, especially among their large Northern readership. Knowing the benefits of education, emancipated blacks worked vigorously to establish schools and colleges during the Reconstruction period and, despite segregation, intimidation, and violent opposition, continued to pursue equal education in the years to follow.

Title page from FIFTY YEARS IN CHAINS; OR, THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN SLAVE (New York: H. Dayton, 1859.) Documenting the American South, (,) The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
African Americans did not remain silent during the years of slavery. They did not relinquish their identities as unique individuals or as Africans. And they did not give up their hopes for freedom. Rather, they spoke their minds, passions, and emotions through songs, stories, and the written word. In music and dance, they expressed their personal creativity and their cultural heritage. By creating baskets, jewelry, pots, and quilts, black men and women brought beauty and hope into a world that oppressed and enslaved them.

Kimberly Sambol-Tosco is a graduate student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation will explore the centrality of gender in African-American political identities in the North during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
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