Defying Slave Anti-Literacy Laws and Religious Bans in the Slave South

laws against literacy book cover
laws against literacy book cover

From the book:

The dramatic increase in repression after 1830 had its desired effect, thereafter. “On plantations of hundreds of slaves it was common to discover that not one of them had the mere rudiments of education. In some large districts it was considered almost a phenomenon to find a Negro who could read the Bible or sign his name.” In Georgia, a study concluded that “outside of Savannah, Augusta and Columbus there were, it is said, not a dozen colored people able to read and write, and in the country places, perhaps not one.”

North Carolina’s experience was typical. The state legislature rejected bills to prohibit the teaching of slaves to read or write in 1818, 1819, and 1825. In 1826, the Governor told the legislature that the Northern agitation “demanded from us a sleepless vigilance” and he recommended laws expanding the powers of the patrols, which was finally done in the legislature of 1828-1829. The ban on teaching a slave to read or write was considered by North Carolina’s Senate in secret session; the ban began in 1830, the beginning of the height of the slave power. “But this mighty power, through the press and the schools, and the rival political parties, and penal legislation, and the terrors of persecution, at last issued its mandates; bade men hold their tongues, and utter no blasphemy against the immaculate purity of that august power.”

The slave power could silence the voices of criticism, not just from blacks and abolitionists, but from the churches, and the churches grew silent. After the Civil War, a Methodist preacher in Georgia wrote, “You know that the slave power, that held even Congress subject to its will, and could lay its restraining hand upon the Supreme Court of the United States, and, in defiance of legislative enactments of Northern States, send an officer and bring back the fugitive slave, would have silenced their voices forever had they presumed to preach against all the abuses of slavery.” He concluded, “Our minds, our speech, our consciences, our press, our pulpit, all were in abject dependence upon the slave power.”

The fact that fear of the abolitionist movement led to increased powers of the patrols was well known. A pro-slavery book in 1836 argued, “The inquisitorial visits, patrols, searches, confinement to plantations, the refusal of usual indulgences, and the exaction of additional duties, are all the fruits of [abolitionist] fanaticism.”

It is frightful just how successful the blunt laws banning the education of slaves were, especially after the Nat Turner rebellion: the measure of the success was the almost total collapse of instruction in reading or writing; all formal religious instruction became oral. “The word instruction thereafter signified among the southerners a procedure quite different from what the term meant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when negroes were taught to read and write that they might learn the truth for themselves.”

This now meant “a scheme of oral instruction in Christian truth or of religion without letters.” The missionaries’ work on the plantations, and their Sunday schools for children and adult slaves, had always been mainly oral instruction, but all efforts at literacy were constrained by 1831. “Memory training,” without letters, now ruled the day...