Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Synopsis

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-Taught traces 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.

Excerpt

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 African Americans’ creative and surreptitious efforts to become literate while enslaved provided a rich context for their eagerness to attend schools in the aftermath of the Civil War. Literate men who escaped slavery to enlist in the Union army, for example, became teachers in regiments of black men, and once the war ended, these same men taught in local communities. They also advocated for political and economic equality, underscoring with each letter or petition precisely why literacy was such an urgent priority to an oppressed group living within a literate society.

I relied on a vast number of sources to tell this history of freedpeople’s role in educating themselves. I returned, in the first place, to the same missionary archives that other historians have used, and I learned to read between the lines, to pull out people who are mentioned only in passing. I learned to overlook white missionaries’ paternalism at times and to expose and challenge it at other times. But relying on sources produced by white people to tell a story about black people can be frustrating. One day after spending many hours in Union records and American Missionary Association (AMA) manuscripts, my craving for black sources was palpable. I walked around the library muttering, “Where are the black people? I have to find the black people.” That day I found Elijah Marrs in a bibliography of black autobiography, and he became an important guide who took me from the time he learned to read while enslaved in Kentucky, to his decision to lead other black men into the army, to his teaching in his regiment, his agitation for African American political rights, and finally to teaching black children into the twentieth century. Other guides appeared for short portions of the journey: among others, John Sweney, Mattie Jackson, London Ferebee, Margaret Adams, and E. D. Tilghman. I encountered them in military records, slave narratives, autobiographies, black college archives, the records of the Freed-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.