Anti-Literacy Ideology

Popular Sentiments Were As Strong As Laws

5/16/20231 min read

“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).