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Throughout the colonial period, education for slaves was not only tolerated but largely encouraged for religious purposes. The two most prominent religious groups, Congregationalists and Anglicans, both saw the conversion of slaves as a spiritual obligation, and the ability to read scriptures was seen as part of this process (Monoghan 2005). The Great Awakening served as a catalyst for encouraging education for all members of society.
While reading was encouraged, writing often was not. Writing was seen as a mark of status, and seen as unnecessary for many members of society, including slaves. Memorization, catechisms, and scripture formed the basis of what education was available.
Despite the lack of importance generally given to writing instruction, there were some notable exceptions; perhaps the most famous of these was Phillis Wheatley, whose poetry won admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
South Carolina passed the first laws prohibiting slave education in 1740. While there were no limitations on reading, it became illegal to teach slaves to write. This legislation followed the Stono Rebellion. As fears spread among plantation owners concerning the spread of abolitionist materials, forged passes, and other incendiary writings, the need to restrict slaves’ ability to communicate with one another became more pronounced. For this reason, 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 or 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." While the law does not clarify any consequences for the slaves who might attain this more highly prized form of literacy, the financial consequences for teachers are clear.
In 1755, Georgia modeled its own ban on teaching slaves to write after South Carolina's earlier legislation. Again, reading was not prohibited. Throughout the colonial era, reading instruction was tied to the spread of Christianity, so it did not suffer from restrictive legislation until much later (Monaghan 243).
The most oppressive limits on slave education were a reaction to Nat Turner's Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia during the summer of 1831. This event not only caused shock waves across the slaveholding South, but it had a particularly 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 (Albanese 1976). Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their lot; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.
Each state did not respond differently to the insurrection, a few examples are especially illustrative. While Mississippi already had laws designed to prevent slave literacy, in 1831 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.
While states like South Carolina and Georgia had not developed legislation that prohibited education for slaves, other, more moderate states responded directly to the 1831 revolt. In 1832, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave's education between $250 and $500; the law also prohibited any assembly of African-Americans—slave or free—unless five slaveowners 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 1835, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited.
In examining the educational practices of the period, it is difficult to ascertain absolute figures or numbers. However, Genovese (1976) has explored some of these areas and offers some interesting insights.
W. E. B. Du Bois and other contemporaries estimated that by 1860 up to 5% of slaves attained at least a marginal degree of literacy. Genovese comments: "this is entirely plausible and may even be too low" (562). Especially in cities and sizable towns, many free blacks and literate slaves had greater opportunities to teach others, and both white and black activists conducted illegal schools in cities such as Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond, and Atlanta.
Even on plantations, the regular practice of hiring out slaves helped spread literacy. As seen in Frederick Douglass's own narrative, it was common for the literate to share their learning. As a result of the constant flux, few if any plantations would fail to have at least a few literate slaves.
African-American preachers would often attempt to teach some of the slaves to read in secret, but there were very few opportunities for concentrated periods of instruction. Through spirituals, stories, and other forms of oral literacy preachers, abolitionists, and other community leaders imparted valuable political, cultural, and religious information.
Even though mistresses were more likely than masters to ignore the law and teach slaves to read, children were by far the most likely to flout what they saw as unfair and unnecessary restrictions. While peer tutelage was limited in scope, many white children took it a step further. In fact, it was common for slave children to carry the white children's books to school; once there, they would sit outside and try to follow the lessons through the windows.
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 according to Genovese's study of slave narratives "among the bitterest recollections of ex-slaves were those of whippings for trying to learn to read. Few things so outraged their sense of justice" (565).