Slave Women's Literacy in Colonial America

As Seen in Runaway Notices

5/13/20231 min read

"To judge from the notices, for example, few slave women ran away. Fewer still were recorded as being able to read and/or write. In the Chesapeake, women accounted for a modest share (110 of 1030) of the notices printed in the Gazette between 1736 and 1776. Of that number, only 4 could read or read and write.

For most slave women in Virginia, running may not have been a viable choice. Though familiar with the language and customs of their masters, many chose to stay put. Family bound them to the quarters and to the house. Presumably, as they were not as skilled as their menfolk, they also had little to no chance to hire themselves out. And because of their sex, female fugitives faced yet an additional obstacle when they attempted to pass for free or endeavored to find work.

One quarter of women fugitives in Virginia left to visit their husbands or children on nearby plantations. Another quarter, he noted, went to town to pass for free."

BLY, ANTONIO T. “‘Pretends He Can Read’: Runaways and Literacy in Colonial America, 1730—1776.” Early American Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2008, pp. 261–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23546575. Accessed 8 May 2023.