Fearing that black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system, whites in many colonies instituted laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them.
Anti-literacy laws in the United States were a natural extension of the slave code system, that once preventing the enslaved black population from learning how to read in any form. These laws were rooted in the oppressive system of slavery and were enforced to maintain the control and superiority of white slaveholders. Fearing the empowerment and potential rebellion that education could bring, slave owners and lawmakers passed legislation to restrict access to literacy among the enslaved population.
The anti-literacy laws served several purposes. Firstly, they reinforced the belief in white supremacy by deeming African Americans as inferior and unworthy of education. Literacy was seen as a marker of intellectual development, and preventing Blacks from learning to read and write helped perpetuate the myth of their intellectual inferiority.
Secondly, literacy provided the enslaved population with access to information and knowledge that could challenge the institution of slavery. Slave owners feared the dissemination of abolitionist literature and the spread of ideas that could incite rebellions or inspire resistance against slavery. By denying education to Blacks, slaveholders aimed to maintain control and prevent any form of intellectual uprising.
This law was important for obvious reasons:
– Making it illegal for black people to learn to read and write reinforced the notion that Africans were inferior to whites.
– In the antebellum South, literacy was a sign of intellectual development and many white southerners were illiterate, so it was imperative to prevent the blacks from learning to read in order to maintain the myth of white supremacy.
– Learning to read gave the enslaved access to important information. And plantation owners were afraid of the barrage of abolitionist literature flooding the South with News of recent slave insurrections and arguments against slavery as an institution.
Anti-literacy laws were in force in many slave states before and during the American Civil War, affecting slaves, freedmen, and in some cases all people of color.
Some laws arose from concerns that literate slaves could forge the documents required to escape to a free state. According to William M. Banks, “Many slaves who learned to write did indeed achieve freedom by this method. The wanted posters for runaways often mentioned whether the escapee could write.”
Anti-literacy laws also arose from fears of slave insurrection, particularly around the time of abolitionist David Walker ‘s 1829 publication of ‘Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World‘, which openly advocated rebellion, and Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831.
Between 1740 and 1834 Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Virginia all passed anti-literacy laws.
South Carolina prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison, via an amendment to its 1739/40 Negro Act.
Below is an excerpt from South Carolina Act of 1740
Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.
The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included the following law “[S31] Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.”
A 19th-century Virginia law specified: “That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any schools or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly ; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.
In North Carolina, black people who disobeyed the law were sentenced to whipping while whites received a fine and/or jail time.
Despite the determined efforts of plantation owners to hinder black individuals from gaining literacy, the black community devised various strategies to overcome these obstacles.
Numerous slave narratives highlight the experiences of enslaved individuals who managed to acquire an education. Some learned to read from fellow literate slaves, while others were fortunate enough to receive instruction from rebellious masters or mistresses who defied the oppressive laws.
One notable example is Frederick Douglass, a former slave who later became a prominent abolitionist leader. At the age of twelve, Douglass was clandestinely taught the alphabet by Sophia Auld, his master’s wife. As he matured, Douglass took the initiative to further his education, acquiring and perusing newspapers and books in secret. His determination and self-directed learning played a crucial role in his personal development and eventual contributions to the abolitionist movement.
House servants who worked closely with the plantation owner’s family also found opportunities to learn. They sometimes participated secretly or indirectly in the reading and writing lessons given to the master’s children by private tutors. The children themselves sometimes taught their slave friends how to read and write. Some slaveholders even allowed this to happen, either because they saw the economic benefits of having literate slaves for business purposes or because they believed slaves should be able to read the Bible.
In the South, educators found ways to get around the law and provide education. For example, John Berry Meachum moved his school, called The Candle Tallow School, out of St. Louis, Missouri when the state passed a law against teaching literacy in 1847. He set up the Floating Freedom School on a steamship on the Mississippi River, beyond the reach of Missouri state law, to continue educating black individuals.
In the North, where chattel slavery had been abolished in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, free African Americans created institutions to eliminate illiteracy in the black community. One of the most popular strategies was the formation of literary societies such as the Theban Literary Society of Pittsburgh, and the African American Female Intelligence Society of Boston.
Toward the end of the antebellum period literary societies served as forums for debating, strategizing, and developing propaganda that advocated the abolishment of southern slavery. This historical process produced great African American authors and works such as Phillis Wheatley ‘s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), David Walker ‘s radical antislavery document Walker’s Appeal (1829), and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).
In 1854, National attention was drawn to the anti-literacy laws after a white woman ‘Margaret Crittendon Douglas‘ was arrested, tried, and served a month in prison for educating free black children in Norfolk, Virginia.
In June 1865 (11 years after the Margaret Crittendon Douglas incident), the members of the free black community of Norfolk, Virginia petitioned the federal government to abolish the restrictive literacy and assembly laws that were still in place in their community. The law was abolished in 1867.
Till date the United States is the only country known to have had anti-literacy laws.