The Slave-Holding Era

During colonial times it was not uncommon for free African Americans to learn to read and write. Religious instruction of free African Americans and African American apprentices was customary and, in fact, often expected. In Virginia, various religious groups provided religious training to free blacks.

Far fewer slaves than free blacks were educated. Some owners saw education as a way of increasing the efficiency of the labor force. Others wanted both enslaved and free African Americans to learn to read so that they could understand the principles of Christianity. The Bible was often a slave’s only book.

As anti-slavery sentiment grew, Virginia and other southern states began to pass laws against educating slaves. Slaves who could read abolitionist tracts were dangerous. So were those who could forge passes to ease escape. In 1831, Virginia law made it illegal for any African American, slave or free, to learn to read, and all meetings for the purpose of educating African Americans were declared unlawful. Owners often whipped slaves who tried to write even their own names.

By 1848, it was against the law for free blacks to send their children North to be educated. But many African Americans remained determined to teach themselves, as well as others, to read and write.

In 1831, a Virginia law made it illegal for African Americans, whether enslaved or free, to learn to read. The fear of an uprising prompted whites to discourage all activities, including literacy, that might enable blacks to organize. Literacy among slaves threatened the institution of slavery.

African Americans gave accounts, in their own words, of slave life on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. These accounts were recorded when over 2,300 former slaves across the South were interviewed by journalists and writers as part of the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. The following excerpts from WPA interviews, presented in the dialect in which they were recorded, illustrate some of the restrictions on education imposed by slaveholders.

Exhibit Items:

Fountain HughesFountain Hughes Charlie MitchellCharlie Mitchell Hannah LetterHannah
Richard Toler Hemmings LetterJohn Hemings Thomas Jefferson
Slate PiecesSlate Pieces BibleBible Geography Book1867 Geography Book

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