Explore the history of American slavery: the minds of slaves were controlled through slave anti-literacy laws and slave anti-religion laws.

My Name is Jerry Cunningham

In addition to The Alphabet as Resistance, I've written two other non-fiction works, both of history. One is entitled American Socialism, which covers socialist views of modern events. Another is entitled Operation Wetback: Mass Deportation During the Cold War, which covers the 1954 mass deportation of Mexicans following the end of the Korean War. I also have two collections of short stories on Amazon, mainly humorous. My Amazon Author Page is linked here.

The anti-literacy laws and anti-religion laws of the Southern slave states were passed for six main reasons:

  • The fear of the rising voices of the Northern abolitionists

  • The fear of slave rebellion (like Nat Turner’s Virginia rebellion in 1831)

  • The passage of the British Slavery Abolition Act 1833, beginning the freeing of slaves in the Caribbean

  • The need to control the dramatically expanding workforce, especially on the large plantations for cotton and sugar

  • The need to prevent slaves from forging passes or manumission papers

  • The need to prevent slaves from communicating with one another or with free blacks about escape, rebellion, mistreatment, or abolition

From the Book: On Slave Religion

  • Across the South, by 1840, about ten percent of the 2.4 million slaves were formally Christian, with 80,000 Baptists, 80,000 Methodists, and several smaller churches.

  • Black churches, with congregations of slaves and free blacks, were rare but growing in the 1820’s; they were soon considered “nurseries of self-government” for slaves. So, black-only religion was banned.

  • Thus, much of slave religion and the daily and nightly solemnity of slave prayers about the tribulations of the slaves was forced to be invisible, or tried to be; it had to fear the patrols.

  • Wash Wilson, once a slave, recalled: “When de [slaves] go round singin’ ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ dat mean dere gwine be a ’ligious meetin’ dat night. De masters . . . didn’t like dem ’ligious meetin’s so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”

  • In secret: “My father would have church in dwelling houses and they had to whisper. [. . .] Sometimes they would have church at his house. That would be when they would want a real meetin' with some real preachin'. [. . .] They used to sing their songs in a whisper and pray in a whisper. That was a prayer-meeting from house to house once or twice - once or twice a week.”

From the bookAnti-literacy laws

  • Anti-literacy laws against writing were ancient; laws against reading and writing were passed in heated times of fear of rebellion and anger at abolitionists.  

  • South Carolina law enhanced the penalties for teaching slaves to read - writing had long been banned - in 1834.

  • To “prevent the general instruction of negroes in the arts of reading and writing,” was, according to the Southern Literary Messenger, “a measure of police essential to the tranquility, nay to the existence of Southern society.”

  • Georgia, in 1829, made it unlawful for whites, slaves and free blacks to teach a slave or a free black “to read or write, either written or printed characters.” Louisiana, in 1830, made it unlawful to teach a slave “to read or write.”

Anti-Literacy Laws and Their Effects: From the Book

Secret learning, and secret writing, was the order of the day. “For God’s sake don’t let a slave be cotched with pencil or paper,” one former slave recalled, “that was a major crime; you might as well have killed your master or mistress.” All along, in many states, teaching slaves had been banned, as in Georgia, where no one “was lawfully permitted to give book instruction to slaves, even in any one of the three R’s..."

The anti-literacy laws were effective: a former slave considered how many slaves she had met who could read and write: “I never saw more than three or four that could properly read at all. I never saw but one that could write.” The author of an extensive survey of religion among blacks in the U.S., the pro-slavery pastor Charles Colcock Jones, wrote in 1842:  

  • "It is impossible to form an estimate of the number of Negroes that read. My belief is that the proportion would be expressed by an almost inconceivable fraction.

  • The greatest number of readers is found in and about towns and cities, and among the free Negro population, some two or three generations removed from servitude." 

An abolitionist from Ohio, after a tour of the South, wrote:  

  • "On the plantation where I now reside there are about one hundred persons over the age of twelve, not a soul of whom can read or write.

  • The same is the case with a large proportion of the plantations throughout the country.

  • I am perfectly safe in saying that, including house-servants and all, both in town and country, there is not one in fifty of the slave population of the South that can read or write."

Anti-Literacy Ideology: Popular Sentiment Was As Strong As The Laws

  • "Southern states fashioned a repressive legal architecture to protect the political economy of slavery, and a key target of those laws was black literacy. [. . .] Famously committed to states’ rights in principle and characterized by an intense localism in their legal culture, southerners actually adhered to no party line on the education of slaves. [. . .]

  • Laws banning the teaching of slaves were only in effect in four states for the entire period from the 1830s to 1865: Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. . . . Two other southern states passed literacy restriction laws in the 1830s but did not maintain them as part of legal codes.’

  • Virginia prohibited ‘meetings or assemblages of slaves’ for the purpose of learning to read or write, and Mississippi likewise banned such assemblies of slaves ‘above the number of five,’ but both states remained silent on any less organized form of slave education, thereby allowing slave owners to teach their slaves if they wished. [. . .]

  • Records reveal few prosecutions for teaching slaves to read or write. [. . .] Not everyone agreed that literate slaves threatened the institution (of slavery).

  • Many white slave owners resolutely, even brutally suppressed slaves’ efforts to educate themselves.

  • Even in states that did not outlaw the teaching of slaves, even in the absence of a complete consensus among white southerners, even for slaves whose owners may not have punished them for learning to read or write, the force of ambient anti-literacy ideology could squelch the will to learn, if not wreak psychological terror.

  • Janet Cornelius’s analysis of the ex-slave interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in the 1930s found that some former slaves recalled more stringent anti-literacy statutes than actually existed.”

From Christopher Hager, Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013).

Slave Rendered Blind for Reading

TONEA STEWART: Those who survived tell their stories. [music] My name is Tonea Stewart. When I was a little girl about five or six years old, I used to sit on the garret, the front porch. In the Mississippi Delta the front porch is called the garret. I listened to my (grandfather) Papa Dallas.

He was blind and had these ugly scars around his eyes. One day, I asked Papa Dallas what happened to his eyes. “Well daughter,” he answered, “when I was mighty young, just about your age, I used to steal away under a big oak tree and I tried to learn my alphabets so that I could learn to read my Bible. But one day the overseer caught me and he drug me out on the plantation and he called out for all the field hands. And he turned to ’em and said, ’Let this be a lesson to all of you darkies. You ain’t got no right to learn to read!’

And then daughter, he whooped me, and he whooped me, and he whooped me. And daughter, as if that wasn’t enough, he turned around and he burned my eyes out!”


From Smithsonian Productions and the Institute of Language and Culture: Remembering Slavery. (p. 280). The New Press. Kindle Edition.