Literacy Higher in 1825 Than in 1860

In 1860, about 10% of slaves had the "rudiments" of reading or writing

7/10/20232 min read

By C.G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro (1913).

In view of this renewed interest in the education of the Negroes of the South we are anxious to know exactly what proportion of the colored population had risen above the plane of illiteracy. Unfortunately this cannot be accurately determined. In the first place, it was difficult to find out whether or not a slave could read or write when such a disclosure would often cause him to be dreadfully punished or sold to some cruel master of the lower South.

Moreover, statistics of this kind are scarce and travelers who undertook to answer this question made conflicting statements. Some persons of that day left records which indicate that only a few slaves succeeded in acquiring an imperfect knowledge of the common branches, whereas others noted a larger number of intelligent servants.

Arfwedson remarked that the slaves seldom learned to read; yet elsewhere he stated that he sometimes found some who had that ability. ^ Abolitionists like May, Jay, and Garrison would make it seem that the conditions in the South were such that it was almost impossible for a slave to develop intellectual power. ^ Rev. C. C. Jones ^ believed that only an inconsiderable fraction of the slaves could read. Witnesses to the contrary, however, are numerous. Abdy, Smedes, Andrews, Bremer, and Olmsted found during their stay in the South many slaves who had experienced unusual spiritual and mental development. ^ Nehemiah Adams, giving the southern view of slavery in 1854, said that large numbers of the slaves could read and were furnished with the Scriptures. ^ Amos Dresser, who traveled extensively in the Southwest, believed that one out of every fifty could read and write. ^ C. G. Parsons thought that five thousand out of the four hundred thousand slaves of Georgia had these attainments.

These figures, of course, would run much higher were the free people of color included in the estimates. Combining the two it is safe to say that ten per cent of the adult Negroes had the rudiments of education in 1860, but the proportion was much less than it was near the close of the era of better beginnings about 1825.