Tag Archives: Harriet Jacobs

“The more I read, the more I fought against slavery.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy: Part 3)

old grimes_001
William Grimes authored the first book-form slave narrative printed in the United States.  (Image credit:  New Georgia Encyclopedia)

“It was my great desire to read easily this book. I thought it was written by the Almighty himself. I loved this book, and prayed over it and labored until I could read it. I used to go to the church to hear the white preacher. When I heard him read his text, I would read mine when I got home. This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave. Thus did I labor eleven years under the impression that I was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ever-blessed God.” — Rev. Peter Randolph, 1855

For enslaved Americans, literacy was a path to freedom.

Those who could write forged the “tickets” that both enslaved and free blacks needed to move about.  Some of these tickets took enslaved people all the way to free states, and even to Canada.

Literacy provided spiritual freedom.  It enabled people in bondage to read the whole Bible, and not just the sections that enslavers quoted.  The Bible represented liberation, both on earth and in eternity.  Enslaved Christians identified with the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

And in sharing their stories, people who had escaped slavery hoped to awaken sympathy in their fellow Americans and achieve freedom for all enslaved people.

This is the final episode in a three-part 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.

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

“I would take my child and hide in the mountains.” (Slave Narratives and the Pursuit of Literacy: Part 1)

Bethany Veney
Bethany Veney; image credit:  Public Domain

The next thing I recall as being of any particular importance to me was the death of my mother, and, soon after, that of Master Fletcher. I must have been about nine years old at that time.

Master’s children consisted of five daughters and two sons. As usual in such cases, an inventory was taken of his property (all of which nearly was in slaves), and, being apportioned in shares, lots were drawn, and, as might chance, we fell to our several masters and mistresses.

In 1740, the colony of South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to “teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write,” punishable by a fine of “one hundred pounds, current money.” Within 100 years, at least twelve states would pass statutes proscribing the literacy or education of enslaved or free blacks.

Nevertheless, untold numbers of enslaved Americans did learn to read and write. At times, they had the support and sanction of the white people closest to them. That was case with poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a volume of poetry.

Sometimes, they learned from other enslaved or free people of color.

And others had to scheme and strategize their way to literacy. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was the internationally acclaimed orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, whose memoir became a bestseller.

Bethany Veney’s memoir is much less famous, but still an important contribution to our understanding of slavery.  She is featured in today’s episode, the first in a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs on Apple Podcasts

The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman

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

University of North Carolina’s North American Slave Narratives collection