Academic journal article Education

The Laws of Ignorance Designed to Keep Slaves (Blacks) Illiterate and Powerless

Academic journal article Education

The Laws of Ignorance Designed to Keep Slaves (Blacks) Illiterate and Powerless

Article excerpt

The Laws of Ignorance

Although the African Black populations were typically illiterate, this does not mean they were unintelligent. Rather, they had been educated in skills, crafts, and traditions which were often lost during centuries of slavery. This was not a haphazard occurrence but a deliberately sought goal, for the Black who had lost his roots in Africa could be more easily molded into the docile and conforming worker here,

Ignorance was the major control instrument of slavery. every master realized that he had to know almost everything, and the slaves had to know almost nothing. An educated Black might realize how horribly he was treated and revolt. Slavery was always more successful on the large rice or cotton plantations where the Blacks could be isolated from outside influence. City s;aves had more contacts with free Blacks, and at the beginning of the Civil War there were more free Blacks in the South than in the North.

The simple goals and tribal organizations of the African Blacks could not withstand the worldwide demand for slaves. West Africa alone lost 6.2 million persons in the Eighteenth Century. Children were preferred by many ship's masters as they were more tractable and required less food and space. Having had little time to learn the tribal crafts and traditions, they soon lost these values completely. Far more young men than women were transported, and they were just the ones most likely to disdain any family beliefs and practices.

In the American (North, Latin, or South) colonies, the slave lost his identity as a valued member of a local community. Often captives or different tribes, languages, homelands, and religions, would be grouped and sold together to lessen the likelihood of cooperation and resistance. Valued for his muscles rather than his brains, he might be taught a few skills, but no more than necessary.

South Carolina adopted the first compulsory ignorance law in America in 1740:

And whereas the having of slaves

taught to write, or suffering them to

be employed in writing, may be

attended with great inconveniences:

Be it enacted, that all and every

person or persons whatsolver, who shall

hereafter teach, or shall use or

employ any slave as a scribe in any

manner of writing whatsolver,

hereafter taught to write, every such

persons or persons shall, for each

offense, forfeit the sum of one

hundred pounds current money.

Eventually each state had similar laws, nevertheless, some Blacks did achieve an education. That great Black orator and writer, Frederick Douglas, was taught to read and write by his Southern mistress. Some large Southern cities has "secret schools," and instances are known in which slaves and free Blacks attended school together, a highly dangerous practice.

The Deep South enforced the most severe restrictions upon Black learning. No records have been found that anyone in Alabama or Mississippi ever violated the laws by teaching Blacks to read. Douglas simply claimed that no slave was ever able to offer a bribe large enough to make the risk worthwhile.

At some times and in some localities, free Blacks were almost as restricted as slaves. In both the North and the South, public schools, secret and other private schools, informal apprenticeships to other Blacks, and special treaty requirements provided the rudiments of an education to a few motivated free Blacks. The first compulsory education laws were not passed until 1865, with the last coming in 1918. It is certain that many whites as well as Blacks were illiterate until fairly recent times.

A few stories are known like that of Myrtilla Miner, a young New Yorker, who went to Mississippi to teach the daughters of planters in Wilkinson county. After she proposed to teach slaves in her free time, she was directed to go home if she wished to teach "niggers. …

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