The Literacy Achievements of African Americans after the Civil War

6/10/20231 min read

  • “From 1840 to 1930, the U.S. Census was the only large-scale measure of literacy. The U.S. Census asked whether people older than age 10 in the house were literate. [. . .]

  • The 1850 U.S. Census, which occurred before Emancipation and did not include slaves, reported that 36% of free Blacks were illiterate. The 1870 U.S. Census, which was the first conducted after Emancipation, reported that 81% of Blacks were illiterate, compared to 9% of Whites.

  • Subsequent U.S. Censuses reveal a sharp decline in Black illiteracy as high-illiteracy older cohorts were gradually replaced by more literate younger generations. In 1870, there was little difference between older and younger Blacks’ literacy: 85% of Black adults ages 60 to 69 were illiterate, and 76% of Blacks ages 20 to 29 were illiterate.

  • By 1900, overall Black illiteracy had decreased to 48%, with the younger generations showing much higher literacy levels than older generations: 85% of Blacks ages 60 to 69 were illiterate, whereas 37% of Blacks ages 20 to 29 were illiterate. It is important to mention that this cohort, the 20- to 29-year-old Blacks in 1900, were the first cohort born after Emancipation.

  • By 1920, overall Black illiteracy was 24%, with 61% of Blacks ages 60 to 69 illiterate whereas 18% of Blacks ages 20 to 29 illiterate.

  • The last time the literacy question was asked on the U.S. Census was in 1930. By then, 15% of Blacks were illiterate and 2% of Whites were illiterate.”


Cohen, et al, Mind the Gap: The BlackWhite Literacy Gap in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and Its Implications, Journal of Literacy Research (June, 2012).