Examples of Slaves Learning to Read with the Webster's Blueback Speller

Avoiding Punishment for Literacy

6/16/20231 min read

from the book:

Reverend Northcross's owner found out that he had a blue-back speller. "[H]e simply told me that he heard that I had a book, and if I was caught with it I would be hung."

The testimony of those slaves who learned to read persistently mention Webster's blue-back speller. Webster's spelling book was a chief tool of slave resistance to anti-literacy laws and attitudes.

Jenny Proctor, a former slave, recalled: “None of us was 'lowed to see a book or try to learn. They say we git smarter than they was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of that Webster's old blue-back speller and we hides it till 'way in the night and then we lights a little pine torch, and studies that spelling book. We learn it too. I can now read some now and write a little too.”

You could just head for the hills and learn to read, recalled Reverend W.E. Northcross, a former slave: "I secured a blue-back speller and went out on the mountain every Sunday to meet this gentleman, to be taught. I would stay on the mountain all day Sunday without food. I continued this way for a year and succeeded well. I hired my own time and with my blue-back speller went to the mountain to have this man teach me. The mountain was the great school which I attended."