Tag Archives: slavery

“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

“We have to be shot down here like rabbits.” (The Great Migration: Part 1)

“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” W.E.B. du Bois

Initiated before the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction held the promise of freedom, full citizenship, and (for men) the franchise for African Americans. But even before the Federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction withdrew from the former Confederate States, Southern communities and legislatures set about to return the freed men and women to their former condition.

Despite the guarantees of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, blacks were denied their new rights through legal and extra-legal means. In the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains.  However, many more faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.

Seeking information about opportunities in the North, men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations.  The following letter was written by a 17-year-old girl from Selma, Alabama:

Dear Sir: I am a reader of the Chicago Defender I think it is one of the Most Wonderful Papers of our race printed. Sirs I am writeing to see if You all will please get me a job. And Sir I can wash dishes, wash, iron, nursing, work in groceries and dry good stores. Just any of these I can do. Sir, whosoever you get the job from, please tell them to send me a ticket and I will pay them when I get their, as I have not got enough money to pay my way. I am a girl of 17 years old and in the 8 grade at Knox Academy School. But on account of not having money enough I had to stop school. Sir I will thank you all with all my heart. May God Bless you all. Please answer in return mail.

In this first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration, we will see what changed–and what didn’t change–for African Americans in the South after the Civil War.


Recommended Reading
The Warmth of Other Suns:  Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow:  Richard Wormser covers a lot of ground in a relative few pages.  It opens with Reconstruction and ends at 1954.

I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon

Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” Carole Marks

Blowing the Trumpet: The ‘Chicago Defender’ and Black Migration during World War I,” James R. Grossman

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration,” James R. Grossman

Separate is Not Equal:  Brown v. Board of Education

The Civil War:  The Senate’s History