Harvard Educational Review
  1. Self-Taught

    African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

    By Heather Andrea Williams

    Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 320 pp. $34.95.

    In Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, Heather Andrea Williams meticulously chronicles African Americans’ quest for education. Focused specifically on the struggle that began in the antebellum period and continued through Reconstruction, Williams’s analysis is punctuated with rich anecdotes of ordinary African Americans’ personal and collective fight for education.

    Most White Southern slaveholders were adamantly opposed to the education of their slaves because they feared an educated slave population would threaten their authority. Williams documents a series of statutes that criminalized any person who taught slaves or supported their efforts to teach themselves. One statute in particular, passed in North Carolina in 1830, articulated that “any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State.” The statute was enacted because of a fear that if slaves became literate they would also become critical of their slave status and eventually rebel.

    Slaves who attempted to educate themselves, if caught, suffered physical and psychological consequences. Nonetheless, even under the strict limitations of slavery, slaves still developed ingenious strategies to become literate. Williams tells the story of slaves who received their instruction in “pit schools,” so named as such because they were “pit[s] in the ground way out in the woods away from the master’s surveillance.” She also writes about slaves who “hid spelling books under their hats to be ready whenever they could entreat or bribe a literate person to teach them.” During the Civil War — a time when the fate of the institution of slavery was yet undetermined — African Americans’ desire to learn continued to burn. Williams tells of some Black soldiers studying their lessons during their lunch breaks and grasping at every opportunity to advance their education. She found that “during the transition from slavery to freedom, many African Americans simultaneously attempted to satisfy material needs with intellectual longing.” She presents detailed evidence of African Americans simultaneously clamoring for their education and their freedom.

    Upon emancipation, White southerners’ fear of an educated Black population did not dissipate; they used violence and arson to prevent attempts to educate the freed slaves. Yet, in spite of the danger and meager resources, many Black freed slaves constructed and operated their own schools. Williams discusses how students would ask for longer class days and shorter vacations in order to maximize their instructional time. They would walk miles from their homes to the nearest school, some “barefoot, wearing torn, ragged clothing.” Parents who could not attend schools themselves encouraged their children to learn as much as possible. These independent African American schools, Willliams argues, served as “the central point of an educational sphere, as students as taught became teachers at home.”

    Black educators were integral to advancing the literacy campaign. “With so much invested in the empowering potential of education,” Williams discovered that “freedpeople identified teaching as a critical job for building self-sufficient communities and called both men and women into service.” Various documents and narratives attest to the pedagogical conflict between Northern White missionaries and local African American community leaders and parents, who “sometimes had conflicting answers to the critical question of who would direct hiring and who would make pedagogical decisions in freed slaves’ schools.” To illustrate this point, Williams offers the example of S. W. Magill, an American Missionary Association employee who sought complete control over Savannah’s Black educational institutions. He was outraged that the freed slaves had established the Savannah Educational Association, and in response he “complained that black people expected him to work with them rather than hand over authority.” Placing Black teachers and administrators in Black schools was part of the freed slaves’ larger campaign for self-determination.

    William posits that the newly emancipated African American communities’ success in establishing their own educational institutions impacted and “transformed” education in the American South. While in a few cases, African American teachers taught poor southern Whites in predominantly African American independent schools, northern missionaries and state legislatures eventually “took action to establish educational facilities for large numbers of poor whites who had previously gone unschooled.” Williams points out that the notion of a literate and free African American population both threatened and inspired White southerners to seek educational opportunity for their own communities.

    The powerful narratives of Blacks striving to build their own schools, selecting their own curriculum and teachers, and ultimately setting the educational standard for all southerners entices even the most reticent consumer to read this slice of American history in its entirety. Interweaving an eclectic selection of primary documents and seminal secondary sources, Williams offers her readers an outstanding resource for further study into the history of the southern African American educational experience and its influence on the birth of public education in the South.

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