Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Heather Andrea Williams
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In this previously untold story of African American self-education, Heather Andrea Williams moves across time to examine African Americans' relationship to literacy during slavery, during the Civil War, and in the first decades of freedom.Self-Taughttraces the historical antecedents to freedpeople's intense desire to become literate and demonstrates how the visions of enslaved African Americans emerged into plans and action once slavery ended.Enslaved people, Williams contends, placed great value in the practical power of literacy, whether it was to enable them to read the Bible for themselves or to keep informed of the abolition movement and later the progress of the Civil War. Some slaves devised creative and subversive means to acquire literacy, and when slavery ended, they became the first teachers of other freedpeople. Soon overwhelmed by the demands for education, they called on northern missionaries to come to their aid. Williams argues that by teaching, building schools, supporting teachers, resisting violence, and claiming education as a civil right, African Americans transformed the face of education in the South to the great benefit of both black and white southerners.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0484-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Education, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-6)

    This study emerged from one central historical question: What did ordinary African Americans in the South do to provide education for themselves during slavery and when slavery ended? To get at the answers, I have cut across traditional constructs of periodization and have therefore been able to see African Americans in slavery, in the Civil War, and in the first decade of freedom. Reading in this way made it possible to discern a continuity of people and ideas; and I was able to observe the visions of enslaved people emerge into plans and actions once they escaped slavery. Looking at...

  5. CHAPTER 1 In Secret Places: Acquiring Literacy in Slave Communities
    (pp. 7-29)

    Despite laws and custom in slave states prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read and write, a small percentage managed, through ingenuity and will, to acquire a degree of literacy in the antebellum period.¹ Access to the written word, whether scriptural or political, revealed a world beyond bondage in which African Americans could imagine themselves free to think and behave as they chose. Literacy provided the means to write a pass to freedom, to learn of abolitionist activities, or to read the Bible. Because it most often happened in secret, the very act of learning to read and write subverted...

  6. CHAPTER 2 A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom
    (pp. 30-44)

    As Mattie Jackson did, thousands of enslaved people seized on the turmoil of the Civil War to make a final move for freedom. In sites of Union occupation, so many African Americans fled slavery that they began to influence Union policy, ultimately transforming the military’s treatment of slaves seeking refuge. From an initial policy of noninterference with slave property, the Union came to understand two things. First, it was powerless to stop the flow of enslaved people into Union camps. Second, it could not successfully conduct the war without African American assistance.¹ These realizations, however, came only gradually.

    The social...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books: African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission
    (pp. 45-66)

    By the fall of 1864 the Union had dramatically changed its war strategy. The president’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 freed the slaves in territory under Confederate control and announced the Union’s intention to enlist black soldiers. Five months later, the War Department created a Bureau of Colored Troops, and finally the Union officially accepted African American men as soldiers. Thus it was that in September 1864, when Elijah Marrs walked away from the Shelby County, Kentucky, farm where he worked alongside thirty other enslaved people, instead of seeking protection as a contraband of war, he marched toward enlistment as...

  8. CHAPTER 4 We Must Get Education for Ourselves and Our Children: Advocacy for Education
    (pp. 67-79)

    Sergeants Elijah and Henry Marrs mustered out of the army into a world transformed by war and freedom. They and other black men had enlisted on the run from slavery; now astonished former owners looked on as black soldiers returned home in Union uniforms, armed with pistol and pen and paper, issuing public appeals for African American civil rights.¹ When freedpeople gathered in local communities to enunciate their shared goals and to design strategies for fighting the discrimination that stood in the way of their progress, they selected men who could put their concerns into writing. Often, these men had...

  9. CHAPTER 5 We Are Striving to Dwo Buisness on Our Own Hook: Organizing Schools on the Ground
    (pp. 80-95)

    As African Americans struggled to bring schools into being, they experienced the complex, textured relationships that evolved as the constellation of participants—northern whites, southern whites, southern blacks, and sometimes northern blacks—interacted with one another to teach freedpeople. Relations with white northern missionaries sometimes proved challenging, for southern blacks and northern whites could be partners in the educational mission, or they could be combatants for dominance over the educational agenda. African Americans were now free, but free in a land where power and resources yet rested in white hands. The very decision to communicate with the white men who...

  10. CHAPTER 6 We Are Laboring under Many Difficulties: African American Teachers in Freedpeople’s Schools
    (pp. 96-125)

    Amid the contention over white missionaries’ efforts to control freedpeople’s education, amid struggles over free or public schools, and amid attempts by some white southerners to impede black education, African Americans entered classrooms as teachers. Rather than simply waiting for help to come, they used what learning they had to begin to teach. John Alvord narrated this phenomenon in one of his reports. ‘‘Not only are individuals seen at study, and under the most untoward circumstances,’’ he observed, ‘‘but in very many places I have found what I will call ‘native schools,’ often rude and very imperfect, butthere they...

  11. CHAPTER 7 A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge: Textbooks and Freedpeople’s Schools
    (pp. 126-137)

    Books were of course essential to teaching. These were the aids that teachers customarily relied on to provide common reference points. Setting individual lessons for large numbers of students could be tedious and exhausting. But books were scarce commodities within freed communities. James Yeatman reported seeing the young man in Arkansas with a worn book of poems by Tennyson. Henry McNeal Turner tried to barter with the government for books for his regiment, and Emanuel Smith in Apalachicola, Florida imported books from the American Missionary Association in New York to pass on to freedpeople who could hardly afford to pay...

  12. CHAPTER 8 If Anybody Wants an Education, It Is Me: Students in Freedpeople’s Schools
    (pp. 138-173)

    London R. Ferebee, normal school graduate and elder in the ame Zion Church, marked three significant dates in his life: the day he was born, the day he became free, and the day he learned the alphabet. Ferebee was twelve years old when he ran away to Union soldiers at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1861. He was fourteen when Isaac Bishop, a black minister, taught him the alphabet on June 1, 1863, in the school that Bishop held in his New Bern church. A few months later, Ferebee’s family moved to Roanoke Island to escape an outbreak of smallpox,...

  13. CHAPTER 9 First Movings of the Waters: The Creation of Common School Systems for Black and White Students
    (pp. 174-200)

    Freedpeople’s commitment to education took both white southerners and northerners by surprise, but it was particularly stunning to those from the South who thought they knew the black people who lived among them. John Alvord recounted the following experience with a member of the Louisiana legislature in New Orleans in 1866. The two men were walking past a schoolyard at recess when the legislator stopped, stared, and asked:

    ‘‘Is this a school?’’

    ‘‘Yes,’’ I replied.

    ‘‘What! Of niggers?’’

    ‘‘These are colored children, evidently,’’ I answered.

    ‘‘Well! well!’’ said he, and raising his hands, ‘‘I have seen many an absurdity in...

    (pp. 201-202)

    Elijah Marrs died in the summer of 1910, even as W. E. B. Du Bois and his Fisk University team conducted the research forThe Common School and the Negro American.¹ At seventy years old, Marrs had lived through slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and redemption. He had been enfranchised and disfranchised. Marrs taught in Kentucky’s ‘‘Colored Schools’’ for nearly thirty years, until 1892. Both as a teacher and, after retirement, an observer of the state’s public schools, Marrs would have been mindful of the unequal system that the state had designed for black students. Unless his political sensibilities had mellowed considerably,...

  15. APPENDIX: African Americans, Literacy, and the Law in the Antebellum South
    (pp. 203-214)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 215-264)
    (pp. 265-286)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 287-304)