This article is the first in a series that exams the African American experience with America’s education system. Part one will examine the education of Blacks during the times of slavery.
Education for African Americans during slavery was mainly illegal. Whites feared that a literate slave population would be a threat to the institution of slavery. Therefore, laws were passed that forbid Blacks to learn to read and write. It was considered a crime for anyone to teach Blacks to read and write. Those who were caught teaching Blacks were fined, imprisoned, run out of town, or beaten or tortured. Slaves were not allowed access to paper or other materials that could be used to learn.
There were several reasons that whites were reluctant to allow Blacks access to education. One primary reason was the perception that Blacks were intellectually inferior and therefore lacked the mental capacity to learn. Other reasons were the fear that Blacks would learn to create documents such as freedom papers and passes that would allow them safe travels to free states. Finally, whites were afraid that Blacks would learn to read the writings of abolitionists, which would then lead to violent revolutions.
Two such revolutions occurred during the Stone Rebellion of 1739, in which slaves seeking to escape to Florida killed over 20 whites. The second event was a revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, that resulted in over 65 whites and over 100 slaves killed.
However, despite these fears, some slave owners did seek to allow Blacks access to literature. People in both the South and more so in the North granted Blacks access to one particular piece of writing, the Bible. The idea of the Bible as an entryway to literacy is itself ironic since many whites also utilized the Bible as a means to justify the institution of slavery. Slave owners pointed to the existence of slavery in the Bible as a means to reinforce their oppressive behavior. Another reason was some whites believed that allowing slaves access to the Bible was critical to the salvation of the slaves. Other slaves were taught basic literacy and counting so that they could be more productive workers. Needless to say, when given the opportunity, Blacks made the most of their opportunities. One such individual was Phyllis Wheatley, an African slave who became one of the more well-known poets in pre-19th century America.
With an emphasis on the Bible and the salvation of slaves, in some instances, Blacks were allowed to gather in worship. It was during these gatherings that Blacks began to secretly organize and develop signals and secret messages that were unknown to whites. They would eventually start to blend their African rhythmic heritage with the teaching of the Bible to establish a call and response style that would become the basis for preaching and spirituals. Again, unbeknownst to the slave masters, these sermons and spirituals had multiple meanings. These gatherings were not limited to salvation, but also literacy and freedom, ideals that would become issues at the forefront of America, following the end of slavery.