South Carolina Negro Act of 1740: The Code that Prohibited Enslaved Africans from Learning to Read

Passed by the South Carolina Assembly on the 10th of May, 1740, the Negro Act was a comprehensive set of laws aimed at controlling and subjugating the enslaved population within the colony. Among its most notorious provisions was the prohibition on enslaved Africans learning to read or write. This deliberate restriction was designed to maintain the status quo of ignorance among the enslaved, thereby preventing any possibility of intellectual empowerment or resistance.

South Carolina implemented this act after the unsuccessful Stono Rebellion in 1739, where approximately 50 enslaved Africans resisted bondage and waged an uprising that killed between 20 and 25 white people in South Carolina.

In addition to establishing a racial caste and property system in the colony, the assembly aimed to quell any further rebellions among the enslaved population. The provisions contained various restrictions: enslaved Africans were barred from growing their own food, forbidden from learning to read, denied freedom of movement, and prohibited from assembling in groups. The act also granted white enslavers the authority to administer brutal punishments, including whipping and even killing slaves deemed “rebellious.”

Additionally, the act also forbade slaves from earning money through their own means, effectively ensuring their perpetual economic dependence on their masters. This provision stripped away any semblance of economic autonomy, relegating enslaved Africans to a lifetime of servitude without the prospect of financial independence.

The cumulative effect of these draconian measures, which remained in effect until 1865, was the systematic dehumanization and subjugation of enslaved Africans, depriving them of basic rights and freedoms accorded to their white counterparts.

The South Carolina Negro Act of 1740 also served as a model for similar oppressive legislation in neighboring states. Georgia, for example, replicated this law by permitting slavery within its borders in 1750 and promptly enacting its own “slave code.” Like the Negro Act of 1740, Georgia’s provisions were also designed to subjugate enslaved Africans and deprive them of basic rights and freedoms accorded to their white counterparts.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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