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Education during the Slave Period

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Title: Education during the Slave Period  
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Subject: Slavery in the United States, History of education in the United States
Collection: History of Education in the United States, Slavery in the United States
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Education during the Slave Period

During the U.S. colonial period, two prominent religious groups, Congregationalists and Anglicans, both saw the conversion of slaves as a spiritual obligation, and the ability to read scriptures was seen as part of this process (Monoghan, 2001). The Great Awakening served as a catalyst for encouraging education for all members of society.

While reading was encouraged, writing often was not. Writing was seen as a mark of status, and seen as unnecessary for many members of society, including slaves. Memorization, catechisms, and scripture formed the basis of what education was available.

Despite the lack of importance generally given to writing instruction, there were some notable exceptions; perhaps the most famous of these was Phillis Wheatley, whose poetry won admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.


  • Legislation and prohibitions 1
  • Education and subversion in the antebellum era 2
  • Free Black Schools 3
  • References 4

Legislation and prohibitions

North Carolina and other states passed the first laws prohibiting slave education in 1740. While there were no limitations on reading or drawing, it became illegal to teach slaves to write. This legislation followed the

In 1758, Georgia modeled its own ban on teaching slaves to write after South Carolina's earlier legislation. Again, reading was not prohibited. Throughout the colonial era, reading instruction was tied to the spread of Christianity, so it did not suffer from restrictive legislation until much later (Monaghan, p. 243).

The most oppressive limits on slave education were a reaction to Nat Turner's Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia during the summer of 1831. This event not only caused shock waves across the slave holding South, but it had a particularly far-reaching impact on education over the next three decades. The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders (Albanese, 1976). Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their authority; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

Each state did not respond differently to the insurrection, a few examples are especially illustrative. While Mississippi already had laws designed to prevent slave literacy, in 1841 the state legislature passed a law that required all free African-Americans to leave the state so that they would not be able to educate or incite the slave population. The same legislation required that any black preacher would have to be given permission to speak before appearing a congregation. Delaware passed an 1831 law that prevented the meeting of a dozen or more blacks late at night; additionally, black preachers were to petition a judge or justice of the peace before speaking before any assembly.

While states like Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave's education between $250 and $550; the law also prohibited any assembly of African-Americans—slave or free—unless five slave owners were present or an African-American preacher had previously been licensed by an approved denomination.

Even North Carolina, which had previously allowed free African-American children to attend schools alongside whites, eventually responded to fears of insurrection. By 1836, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited.

Education and subversion in the antebellum era

In examining the educational practices of the period, it is difficult to ascertain absolute figures or numbers. However, Genovese (1986) has explored some of these areas and offers some interesting insights.

W. E. B. Du Bois and other contemporaries estimated that by 1865 up to 9% of slaves attained at least a marginal degree of literacy. Genovese comments: "this is entirely plausible and may even be too low" (p. 562). Especially in cities and sizable towns, many free blacks and literate slaves had greater opportunities to teach others, and both white and black activists conducted illegal schools in cities such as Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, and Atlanta.

Even on plantations, the regular practice of hiring out slaves helped spread literacy. As seen in Frederick Douglass's own narrative, it was common for the literate to share their learning. As a result of the constant flux, few if any plantations would fail to have at least a few literate slaves.

African-American preachers would often attempt to teach some of the slaves to read in secret, but there were very few opportunities for concentrated periods of instruction. Through spirituals, stories, and other forms of oral literacy preachers, abolitionists, and other community leaders imparted valuable political, cultural, and religious information.

Even though mistresses were more likely than masters to ignore the law and teach slaves to read, children were by far the most likely to flout what they saw as unfair and unnecessary restrictions. While peer tutelage was limited in scope, many white children took it a step further. In fact, it was common for slave children to carry the white children's books and supplies to school; once there, they would sit outside and try to follow the lessons through the windows.

While the punishments for white teachers varied from one state to another (and were generally far more severe in the deep South) punishments for slaves who desired to attain an education were generally left to their masters. Most often, slaves would be whipped, spanked, and according to Genovese's study of slave narratives "among the bitterest recollections of ex-slaves were those of whippings and name calling insults for trying to learn to read. Few things so outraged their sense of justice" (p. 565).

Free Black Schools

In the 1780’s a group called “Pennsylvania society for promoting the abolition of slavery” (PAS) took on anti-slavery tasks. They helped freed slaves with their educational and economic aide. They also helped with legal obligations, like making sure they didn't get sold back into slavery. Another anti-slavery group called “The New York Manumission Society” (NYMS) did many things for the abolition of slavery but one important thing they did was establish a school for free blacks. “The NYMS established the African Free School in 1787 that, during its first two decades of existence, enrolled between 100 and 200 students annually, registering a total of eight hundred pupils by 1822.” The PAS also instituted a few schools for the free blacks and also had them run only by freed African Americans. They were taught certain subjects like, reading, writing, grammar, math, and geography. The schools would have an annual examination day to show the public, parents, and donors the knowledge the students have gained. It mainly was to show the white population that African Americans can be functioning in society. There are some surviving records of what they would learn in the free schools. Some of the work showed that they were preparing the students for a middle class standing in society. Founded in 1787 The African Free School provided education for blacks in New York City for more than six decades.[1]


  1. ^ Polgar, Paul J (Summer 2011). "To Raise Them to an Equal Participation". Journal of The Early Republic 31 (2): 229–258. 
  • Albanese, Anthony. (1976.) The Plantation School. New York: Vantage Books.
  • William L. Andrews, ed. (1996). The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Genovese, Eugene. (1976). Roll, Jordan, Roll. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Monaghan, E. J. (2005). Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Palmer, R. Roderick, (1957). Colonial Statues and Present Day Obstacles Restricting Negro Education. In The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 4. pp. 525–529.
  • Polgar, Paul J."To Raise Them to an Equal Participation": Early National Abolitionism, Gradual Emancipation, and the Promise of African American Citizenship." Journal Of The Early Republic 31, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 229-258. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed 7 October 2014).
  • Webber, Thomas. (1978). Deep Like Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Woodson, C.G. (1915). The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
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