Laws were created to keep enslaved Africans from learning to read and write, and centuries later, the results were compounded centuries later as many states implemented literacy tests to disqualify and discourage African Americans from voting. Laws were created to prohibit enslaved Africans from reading and writing, many states implemented literacy tests to disqualify and discourage African Americans from voting.
So before we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, let’s take a look back at the laws that suppressed African American literacy and deliberately established the ever existing education gap from which many descendants of enslaved Africans–specifically, African American communities and southern states–have never recovered.
Throughout the colonial era, reading instruction was tied to the spread of religion, so it did not suffer from restrictive legislation until much later. However, the comprehensive Negro Act of 1740 passed in South Carolina made it illegal for slaves to move away, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money, and learn to write English (though reading was not proscribed). Additionally, owners were permitted to kill rebellious slaves if necessary. Specifically, with regard to writing, the State Assembly enacted the following:
“Be it therefore Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any Slave to be taught to write, or shall use to employ any slave as a Scribe in any Manner of Writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such offense forfeit the Sum of One Hundred Pounds current Money.”
Many states modeled their own bans on teaching slaves to write after South Carolina’s legislation. But the most oppressive limits on slave education were a reaction to Nat Turner’s Revolt in Virginia during the summer of 1831. This event not only caused shock waves across the slave holding South, but it had a 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. 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.
Most of the states responded similarly 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.
In 1833, 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.
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 and beaten.
It is interesting that enslaved Africans were prohibited from learning how to read and write in the 1870s, and then nearly a century later, African Americans had to pass a literacy test to be able to vote.
Sources and timelines of the history of voting, see the websites below:
- America’s Black Holocaust Museum, “Voting Rights for Blacks and Poor Whites in Jim Crow South”: http://abhmuseum.org/2012/09/voting-rights-for-blacks-and-poor-whites-in-the-jim-crow-south/
- American Civil Liberties Union, “Timeline of the History of Voting Rights Act”: https://www.aclu.org/timeline-history-voting-rights-act
- Mass Vote, “History of Voting Rights”: http://www.massvote.org/voterinfo/history-of-voting-rights/
- Wikipedia, “Education During the Slave Period”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_during_the_Slave_Period
- Timeline of Selected Events