Why did slaves learn to read if it was outlawed by slave codes?

6/3/20234 min read

Why did slaves learn to read if it was outlawed by slave codes?

  • The slave codes, at first, did not ban the teaching of a slave to read; they banned instead only the teaching of a slave to write. This changed in the repressive 1820-1850 period.

  • The laws against education of the slaves began as laws against teaching the slaves to write. The earliest bans on teaching a slave to write were in South Carolina in 1740 and Georgia in 1755. These and later laws against the ability of slaves to write were not just meant to prevent escapes, but to suppress even the desire for freedom. The control was total. If a slave wanted to write a letter, say to a relative on another plantation, “[t]he white people had to write and read all the letters that passed between us.”

  • The immediate effect of the anti-writing laws helped slaveowners and the patrols manage the problem of slaves forging passes, whether to go to another plantation, or possibly to run away - to escape to freedom.

  • The most common form of writing by slaves was a letter to loved ones on other plantations. The simplest forged pass was for a visit to a nearby plantation.

  • Much more seriously, a series of forged passes could be used by a runaway slave. An advertisement for a runaway twenty-year old female slave in 1845 said that she “is rather tall; can read or write, and so forge passes for herself.” Another example: a former slave recounted forging three passes and using them successfully on his escape from Memphis to Cincinnati and on to Canada.

  • “Literate slaves also helped other slaves. Milla Granson, for example, learned to read and write in Kentucky, was moved to Natchez, and established a midnight school there, where she taught hundreds of fellow slaves to read.” (Cornelius)

  • The worst document that a slave could write, according to the slaveowners, proved that he was a free man. “Free papers” - manumission papers - were forged anyway, despite the heavy fines: a minimum of 5 years in prison in Alabama, with a maximum of 25 years.

  • The desire to read was based on hopes of improvement in a place of no hope. A slave who could read was admired by her peers, and more likely to be aware of current events, such as occasional rebellions or Northern abolitionist sentiment - exactly what slaveowners feared from black literacy.

  • A literate slave might be simply useful for the slaveowner. “Simpson Campbell's ‘Marse Bill’ taught some of his slaves reading and writing so he could use them ‘booking cotton in the field and such like.’” (Cornelius)

  • “Slaves who learned to read and write gained privacy, leisure time, and mobility. Literate slaves also taught others and served as conduits for information within a slave communication network. Some were able to capitalize on their skills in literacy as a starting point for leadership careers [as preachers, in government, and in education] both before and after slavery ended.” (Cornelius)

  • The most rebellious readers understood its revolutionary potential. Frederick Douglass famously wrote of his determination to overcome the power of texts by learning to understand them. “‘Very well,’ thought I. ‘Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”

  • It must be recalled, however, that many readers in the nineteenth century could not write, and many could recite from a page without understanding what they read. And the vast bulk of slaves who could read remained slaves until Emancipation. (Monaghan)

  • The progress of reading for a slave was normally from letters to a blueback speller to catechisms and scripture cards to hymn books and on to select portions of the Bible. Typically, slaves learned to read in secret. A slave who could read could leave the plantation, read the limited road posts and signs - “guideboards” - of the time, stretched between county seats, and escape.

  • The laws against teaching slaves to read mainly came about in the heated 1820-1830’s period and seem to have been widely enforced, and where they weren't, custom enforced an anti-literacy policy.

  • Once the laws came into play that forbade teaching slaves to read, there were counter-forces, among them was the desire of some Christian slaveowners to teach slaves to read. This was a matter of luck: memoirs by women slaveholders after the Civil War, and interviews with former slaves, suggest that the religious teachings of the women slaveholders, and the less common task of teaching their slaves to read, were mainly efforts in the Upper South - Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, and Kentucky.

  • Much of the motivations of slaveowners, or their wives, or of the slaves themselves, were religious ones.

  • Once the laws against both reading and writing were passed in the 1820’s and 1830’s, even free blacks in the cities could no longer go to school, or be taught to read or write, as in Georgia, where, after 1830, “all Negro schools were clandestine.”

  • Anti-reading and writing laws were passed in 1829 in Georgia, 1830 in Louisiana and Virginia, Mississippi in 1831, Alabama in 1833, South Carolina in 1834, and North Carolina in 1835.

  • The laws were effective: a former slave considered how many slaves she had met who could read and write: “I never saw more than three or four that could properly read at all. I never saw but one that could write.”


Sources: The Alphabet As Resistance: Laws Against Reading, Writing and Religion in the Slave South, by Jerry Cunningham. Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy, E. Jennifer Monaghan (American Antiquarian Society, 2000). Review: Literacy and Liberation, (Reviews in American History, John Hopkins Univ. Press, Dec., 2005)."We Slipped and Learned to Read:" Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865, Janet Cornelius, Phylon (3rd Quarter, 1983).