Literacy Rates After the Civil War

Surge in African American Literacy; US Rates Climb

5/17/20231 min read

"By 1860 the male literacy rate in New England was already 95 percent, and uniquely in the world, women there had reached a similar level. The fact that the national average (an especially unhelpful term in the United States) was considerably lower had to do less with a certain backwardness of the white population in the West and South than with the low literacy rate among blacks and Native Americans. Some slaves learned to read the Bible from their mistress, but normally they were kept well away from such things: a literate slave could become a fomenter of rebellion and was treated with constant suspicion.

As for the Northern states, despite much discrimination, freed slaves showed a great interest in written forms of communication— as several hundred autobiographies from the two decades before the Civil War eloquently testify. The nationwide literacy rate among African Americans rose from 39 percent in 1890 to 89 percent in 1910."

Jergen Osterhammel, The Tranformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century