Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Article excerpt

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. By Heather Andrea Williams. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Pp. xiii, 304. Acknowledgments, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

The most important point set out in the introduction to Heather Andrea Williams' important study of black education in the South before, during, and after the Civil War is that in many previous scholarly studies of this topic black people are nearly invisible or, at best, difficult to find amidst the welter of white missionary organizations and northern teachers who came South to "raise up" freedpeople. Determined to show that southern blacks were more than merely passive supporters of northern educational initiatives, the author has searched out a wide range of sources that illustrate that African Americans played an indispensable part in launching a broad-based educational movement before and after northern teachers descended on the South. Thus, in Self-Taught, the starring roles are filled by black students and teachers.

Williams' persistent theme throughout the book is the unrelenting desire for literacy among southern blacks. From her perspective, the yearning to read and to do simple sums was an almost obsessive preoccupation. Tracing this pursuit of literacy from the antebellum period, when most southern states prescribed severe penalties for instruction of slaves, the author demonstrates that those who did become literate, from the justly celebrated Frederick Douglass to the hitherto obscure Elijah Marrs, subsequently played vital educational roles in the post-Civil War South.

Williams' chapters develop various themes but all emphasize the "enmeshed values" of self-help and self-determination (p. 80). She also points out the difficulties that arose from well-intentioned attempts to impose northern values on southern blacks, as well as the widespread assumption of the innate superiority of white people as teachers as well as learners. In this regard, Williams follows James D. Anderson in noting that the unwillingness of many northern whites to recognize the capacity of black people to master intellectual as well as manual curricula "would have ramifications for many years to come" (p. 161).

While Arkansas does not figure prominently in the narrative, Williams does provide the most complete account to date of the decisive role played by the men of the 56th Colored Infantry in the founding of Southland College, near Helena. She makes clear that the emergence of this Quakersponsored institution was in equal parts a "collaboration among black soldiers, local freedpeople, and northern missionaries" (p. 58). Like Ronald Butchart, Williams credits Friends at Southland and other places for largely avoiding the idea of inevitable white supremacy while also speculating, somewhat contradictorily, that Quakers may have been "less intrusive and controlling" because they had no interest in recruiting African Americans into membership as Friends (p. …