“It was only by trickery that I learned to read.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy: Part 2)



Webster's Blue-Backed Speller
Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller 
Image credits:  worthpoint.com and historyisfun.org

Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future, that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write.” — Rev. Elijiah P. Marrs, 1885

Throughout the South, it was illegal for white people to teach black people–enslaved and sometimes free–how to read.  Some whites taught blacks anyway: at times motivated by kindness, other times by self-interest.  But even without the assistance of white people, enslaved Americans learned to read and to write.  Facing the threat of whippings and worse, they learned under cover of night, and in “pit schools” in the woods.  They hid books in their dresses and under their hats so they would be ready for a lesson at any moment.

Today I am continuing a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Bly, Antonio T. “Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 24 Jun. 2019.

Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:’ Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171–186. JSTOR.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer, “Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy,” American Antiquarian Society, 2000.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

Williams, Heather Andrea. “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom,” University of North Carolina Press, 2009

Additional Sources:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives Collection


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