Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom


In this previously untold story of African American self-education, Heather Andrea Williams moves across time to examine African Americans' relationship to literacy during slavery, during the Civil War, and in the first decades of freedom. Self-Taught traces the historical antecedents to freedpeople's intense desire to become literate and demonstrates how the visions of enslaved African Americans emerged into plans and action once slavery ended.
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In this previously untold story of African American self-education, Heather Andrea Williams moves across time to examine African Americans' relationship to literacy during slavery, during the Civil War, and in the first decades of freedom. Self-Taught traces the historical antecedents to freedpeople's intense desire to become literate and demonstrates how the visions of enslaved African Americans emerged into plans and action once slavery ended.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An original, informative, and moving account. . . . [A] major corrective study of the struggle of African Americans."
Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Provides a needed corrective to the existing literature. . . . [A] readable and carefully researched work. . . . Represents an important expansion of knowledge about Reconstruction, the South, the political and cultural struggles of African Americans, and the nation's educational system."
North Carolina Historical Review

"Groundbreaking. . . Williams marshals enormous primary evidence to reveal a previously untold story. . . . Ultimately, a book of triumphant reading—both enslaved and freedpeople's acts of reading."
Southern Cultures

"Makes contributions beyond the author's stated goal of documenting the agency of blacks in acquiring literacy. . . . Williams provides a useful model for how to elucidate relations of power while also explaining their significance for larger historical developments. Hopefully, her success will inspire other historians to pursue similar work."
Florida Historical Quarterly

" [It] is in every respect the first definitive study of the formative stages of universal literacy and formal education among ex-slaves. Never before has anyone described so fully the broad range of roles and the significant contributions of African Americans to the development of formal and public education in the South for themselves and for the entire region. (James D. Anderson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)"

"With great skill, Heather Williams demonstrates the centrality of black people to the process of formal education—the establishment of schools, the creation of a cadre of teachers, the forging of standards of literacy and numeracy—in the post-emancipation years. As she does, Williams makes the case that the issue of education informed the Reconstruction period—the two-cornered struggle between North and South over the rebuilding of Southern society, the three-cornered struggle between white Northerners, white Southerners, and black people over the nature of education, and the less well-known contest between black Northerners and black Southerners over the direction of African American culture. Self-Taught is a work of major significance. (Ira Berlin, University of Maryland)"

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Heather Andrea Williams, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General's Office, is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Table of Contents

1 In secret places : acquiring literacy in slave communities 7
2 A coveted possession : literacy in the first days of freedom 30
3 The men are actually clamoring for books : African American soldiers and the educational mission 45
4 We must get education for ourselves and our children : advocacy for education 67
5 We are striving to dwo buisness on our own hook : organizing schools on the ground 80
6 We are laboring under many difficulties : African American teachers in freedpeople's schools 96
7 A long and tedious road to travel for knowledge : textbooks and freedpeople's schools 126
8 If anybody wants an education, it is me : students in freedpeople's schools 138
9 First movings of the waters : the creation of common school systems for black and white students 174
App African Americans, literacy, and the law in the antebellum South 203
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First Chapter


African American Education in Slavery and Freedom
By Heather Andrea Williams

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2920-X

Chapter One

In Secret Places

Acquiring Literacy in Slave Communities

No child, white people never teach colored people nothing, but to be good to dey Master and Mistress. What learning dey would get in dem days, dey been get it at night. Taught demselves. -Louisa Gause, South Carolina

I have seen the Negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places, sitting in the woods with spelling books. -Charity Bowery, North Carolina

Despite laws and custom in slave states prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read and write, a small percentage managed, through ingenuity and will, to acquire a degree of literacy in the antebellum period. Access to the written word, whether scriptural or political, revealed a world beyond bondage in which African Americans could imagine themselves free to think and behave as they chose. Literacy provided the means to write a pass to freedom, to learn of abolitionist activities, or to read the Bible. Because it most often happened in secret, the very act of learning to read and write subverted the master-slave relationship and created a private life for those who were owned by others. Once literate, many used this hard-won skill to disturb the power relations between master and slave, as they fused their desire for literacy with their desire for freedom.

Placing antiliteracy laws in dialogue with the words of enslaved people enables an examination of the tensions that slave literacy provoked between owned and owner. Masters made every attempt to control their captives' thoughts and imaginations, indeed their hearts and minds. Maintaining a system of bondage in the Age of Enlightenment depended upon the master's being able to speak for the slave, to deny his or her humanity, and to draw a line between slave consciousness and human will. The presence of literate slaves threatened to give lie to the entire system. Reading indicated to the world that this so-called property had a mind, and writing foretold the ability to construct an alternative narrative about bondage itself. Literacy among slaves would expose slavery, and masters knew it.

Understanding how enslaved people learned not only illuminates the importance of literacy as an instrument of resistance and liberation, but also brings into view the clandestine tactics and strategies that enslaved people employed to gain some control over their own lives. While it is common to view Frederick Douglass's antebellum struggle for literacy as exceptional, slave narratives, interviews with former slaves, and other documents offer a view of more widespread communities of learners who also forged the crucial link between literacy and freedom.

The story of Mattie Jackson illustrates the radical potential that enslaved African Americans perceived in literacy. Although Jackson came of age as the institution of slavery faced its final challenge, her personal efforts to free herself are suggestive of other people's experiences in slavery. Once free, Jackson told her story to a more literate black woman who wrote it down. This narrative helps us to understand the key role that literacy-and gender-could play in the crusade for freedom.

As a child in Missouri, Mattie Jackson experienced the family disruptions that so often characterized the experiences of enslaved people. When she was three years old, her father was sold, but he escaped before he could be transferred to his new owner. Months passed before the family received word that he had reached freedom. Two years later, Jackson's mother, Ellen Turner, attempted to escape to Chicago, where her husband now preached. With two children accompanying her, however, Turner was quickly captured and returned to her owner, who promptly sold her and the children. It was not unusual that the man would successfully escape while the woman remained behind, as responsibility for childbearing and child-rearing circumscribed slave women's movement. Work assignments also restricted women's mobility. Men were more likely to be hired out or sent on errands into town, thus acquiring greater knowledge of how to move about without detection as well as greater opportunity to meet people who might shield them from discovery. Turner's attempt to leave, then, spoke of her determination to be free even in the face of the discouraging odds against success. Four years after her initial escape attempt, Turner remarried, and this second husband too escaped, once again to avoid being sold. Now left with four children, Turner went about her job as cook in the household, attending to her domestic duties, even at the expense of caring for her fatally ill son. Her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, might well have thought that all was in good order with this family of slaves. Turner, it appeared, had been tamed. With the loss of two husbands and a child, she seemed to have given up any hope of ever being free. In truth, Turner had not surrendered and had in fact managed to pass on some of her resolve to her daughter, Mattie. The coming of the Civil War stirred their hopes to the surface. With Union troops stationed nearby, tension grew in the household. The Lewises' agitation at news of Union victories emboldened Mattie Jackson and her mother in their challenges to being owned. Gathering information through eavesdropping became an important weapon in their private war with their owners. According to Jackson, when husband and wife talked about the war, Mrs. Lewis "cast her eye around to us for fear we might hear her. Her suspicion was correct; there was not a word that passed that escaped our listening ear."

To learn most of their news, the Jackson women had to listen hard and remember well, tasks that slaves had perfected across the South. Such eavesdropping constituted a vital and accessible component of the intelligence network within slave communities. As important as literacy was to the slaves who employed it in service of their own freedom or for the benefit of others, enslaved African Americans also had other ways of knowing. They relied heavily on oral and aural systems of information. Those with access to white people's conversations listened closely when masters gathered and developed acute skills of perception and memory. As Henry Bibb noted, "slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds. But it seems to me now, that I was particularly observing and apt to retain what came under my observation." Specifically, Bibb recalled, "all that I heard about liberty and freedom to slaves, I never forgot. Among other good trades I learned the art of running away to perfection."

As an enslaved boy in Winchester, Virginia, John Quincy Adams similarly honed his eavesdropping skills. When he learned there was no one to teach him to read and write because whites did not want blacks to become literate, the prohibition only stoked his curiosity. Whenever he heard a white person reading aloud, he lingered to listen, replying "nothing" when asked what he wanted. Then, at the first opportunity, he repeated to his parents everything he had heard. They, in turn, encouraged him to "try to hear all you can, but don't let them know it." By listening in this manner, Adams was able to inform his parents of an impending election that the owners wanted kept from their slaves. His information-gathering skills likely helped the family to escape to Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Other slaves worked as scouts for the one literate person among them. A woman in Beaufort, South Carolina, recalled that her mistress and master spelled out any information they did not want her to understand. As she was unable to read, she memorized the letters and repeated them as soon as she could to her literate uncle. He then decoded her memories into words or scraps of words.

Long after he had transformed himself from enslaved child to prominent African American leader, Booker T. Washington reflected on the eavesdropping that had fed the "grape-vine telegraph" among slaves, which had kept them so well informed of the "questions that were agitating the country" leading up to the war. Enslaved people, he recalled, had developed reliable means for acquiring and dispersing information. For example, the man sent to pick up mail at the post office tarried long enough to overhear white men discussing the letters and newspapers they had just received. On the three-mile walk back to the plantation, the mail carrier relayed the news he had gathered. In this way, slaves often heard of important occurrences before the white people at the big house did.

In addition to this traditional and widely available tactic of eavesdropping, Mattie Jackson and her mother had a device that John Quincy Adams would have coveted: they could "read enough to make out the news in the papers." According to Jackson, "The Union soldiers took much delight in tossing a paper over the fence to us. It aggravated my mistress very much." Although the soldiers likely considered the newspapers to be propaganda directed at white residents, Jackson and her mother appropriated them for their own purposes, sitting up late at night to "read and keep posted about the war." They then strategically deployed the information against their owners. During Mrs. Lewis's visits to oversee her slaves in the kitchen, the women taunted her with their knowledge of Union activity. In one kitchen skirmish the infuriated owner declared, "I think it has come to a pretty pass, that old Lincoln, with his long legs, an old rail splitter, wishes to put the Niggers on an equality with the whites." She went on to vow "that her children should never be on an equal footing with a Nigger, she had rather see them dead." Slave owners grew keenly aware that all around them African Americans were increasingly taking advantage of the Civil War to mount challenges to the institution of slavery. Perhaps spurred on by his wife's diminishing sense of authority over their human property, Mr. Lewis searched Turner's room and, upon finding a newspaper picture of Abraham Lincoln pasted on the wall, angrily demanded an explanation. When Turner, refusing to suppress her own feelings, replied that she had hung the picture because she liked it, a livid Lewis knocked her to the ground and "sent her to the trader's yard for a month as punishment." It must have occurred to Lewis then that Ellen Turner had not been tamed at all; she had merely changed her tactics of resistance. Instead of running away, she now used the newspaper and, by implication, her literacy as a mechanism for destabilizing the master-slave relationship. For her part, Turner fully knew that both she and her room were Lewis's property and that he could enter the space at will. By cutting Lincoln's image from a newspaper and hanging it on a wall in Lewis's house, Turner reinforced for herself the possibility of imminent freedom. At the same time, she issued a challenge to her owner's power by asserting that she and other slaves had allies in high places. In displaying the image of a potential liberator over her bed, she declared that slavery would not last forever and that she fully supported its demise.

In the domestic battle between owners and slaves, literacy persisted as a symbol of resistance. Despite Turner's severe punishment for brandishing Abraham Lincoln's likeness, order in the household continued its decline. While Mrs. Lewis mourned over a Union victory, the enslaved women rejoiced. "The days of sadness for mistress were days of joy for us," Jackson recounted. "We shouted and laughed to the top of our voices. My mistress was more enraged than ever-nothing pleased her." One night, Mrs. Lewis flew into an unprovoked rage. She announced that Jackson would be punished, selected a switch, and placed it in the corner of a room to await her husband's return. Countering Mrs. Lewis's assertion of power, Jackson proclaimed both her recalcitrance and her literacy by bending the switch into the shape of an "M," the first letter of her name. With this symbolic challenge to her master and mistress, Jackson and another enslaved girl walked away from the house.

Jackson's display of literacy, paired with her departure, telegraphed to her owners the clear message that she refused to acquiesce in her enslavement. She sent them word that despite their prohibitions she had learned to write and was intent on marshaling every means at her disposal to undermine their authority. By asserting that Mr. and Mrs. Lewis could not stop her from learning to write, could not whip her, and could not prevent her from running away, Mattie Jackson utilized at once all the oppositional strategies that her mother had used over a lifetime.

The two girls made their way to the arsenal to find the Union troops, who they believed were a new form of protection. But they could gain neither admission to the arsenal nor the protection they sought. Even so, the girls had made a point. Upon returning to the Lewis household, "not a word was spoken respecting our sudden departure."

Silence, however, did not signal peace. Slavery was a negotiated relationship maintained by the power of owners' violence. Sometimes, though, enslaved people overwhelmed shocked owners with displays of their own force. Within weeks the stalemate in the Lewis home erupted into a violent confrontation. Once again the incident began with Mrs. Lewis's complaints. Mr. Lewis intervened, asking Jackson if she had done her work. Jackson said she had, in essence contradicting her mistress, who "flew into a rage and told him I was saucy, and to strike me, and he immediately gave me a severe blow with a stick of wood, which inflicted a deep wound upon my head." When Jackson disobeyed Mr. Lewis's order to change her bloody clothing, he "pulled me into another room and threw me on the floor, placed his knee on my stomach, slapped me on the face and beat me with his fist, and would have punished me more had not my mother interfered." In Jackson's estimation, her mother's refusal to leave the room angered Lewis, but it also intimidated him as he assessed his chances of winning a fight against these two women.

Unlike slave women narrators such as Harriet Jacobs, who felt constrained to present themselves to white northern readers as demure and genteel, Jackson spoke unabashedly of her physical confrontation with her master. "I struggled mightily, and stood him a good test for a while, but he was fast conquering me when my mother came. He was aware my mother could usually defend herself against one man, and both of us would overpower him, so after giving his wife strict orders to take me up stairs and keep me there, he took his carriage and drove away." With his departure Lewis conceded that even the man of the house could no longer control his slaves, which encouraged Jackson to place even more pressure on the weakening slave power.


Excerpted from Self-Taught by Heather Andrea Williams Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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