This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University currently working with the Library’s education team as a Liljenquist Family Fellow.
Many know Susie King Taylor as the first Black Civil War nurse. Some even know her as the first Black woman to publish a Civil War memoir. But I think she should be known for her triumphant education. Taking up only two pages of her 114 page memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, she discusses how she learned to read and write through underground schools in Georgia. This brief passage highlights a vast system of education that enslaved communities used in order to gain the skills too often kept from them, a story worth expanding on.
Education under slavery was heavily prohibited. Enslaved children and adults had to take extreme measures to gain literacy, including attending underground schools. As in the story of Susie King Taylor’s education, enslaved children and adults would secretly attend schools held in the homes of educated African Americans in their town.
My brother and I being the two eldest, we were sent to a friend of my grandmother, Mrs. Woodhouse, a widow, to learn to read and write. She was a free woman and lived on Bay Lane, between Habersham and Price streets, about half a mile from my house. We went every day about nine o’clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them. We went in, one at a time, through the gate, into the yard to the L kitchen, which was the schoolroom. She had twenty-five or thirty children whom she taught, assisted by her daughter, Mary Jane. The neighbors would see us going in sometimes, but they supposed we were there learning trades, as it was the custom to give children a trade of some kind. After school we left the same way we entered, one by one, when we would go to a square, about a block from the school, and wait for each other.” – Susie King Taylor, Reminiscences p. 5
Those that couldn’t attend these group lessons often learned through relatives out of the earshot of their enslavers in the cloak of night, another system of underground education. The stakes of learning were extremely dangerous for them. If they got caught, there would certainly be consequences – often physical and deadly.
These consequences are reflected in newspaper reports on anti-literacy laws of the time found in the Library’s Chronicling America. The Litchfield Enquirer reported the South Carolina law prohibiting “the teaching of slaves or free persons of color to read or to write.” The St. Cloud Democrat noted that the punishment in North Carolina was 39 lashes or imprisonment if you are a person of color, or a $200 fine if you are white for teaching an enslaved person to read or write – roughly $6500 today. The Green Mountain Freeman wrote that Louisiana’s penalty for instructing a free Black person in Sunday School was $500 for the first offense, roughly $16,000 today, and death for the second offense. These states, among many others, banned the teaching of spelling, reading, and writing to enslaved people.
Why then, if they knew their fate could be physical abuse or even death did they continue to pursue literacy?
The ability to read and write gave enslaved people power. On the one hand it gave them skills as described by Susie King Taylor to write passes for all persons of color. These passes could be travel passes used to sneak to the North for freedom, or they could be curfew passes for persons of color to be out past dark, as was the case in Reminiscences. Additionally, it allowed them to have a personal freedom that they rarely experienced. The historian Dr. Heather A. Williams wrote that it allowed them to imagine “a world beyond the bondage.”
Using primary sources available in the Liljenquist Family Collection, as well as other Library of Congress primary sources, teachers might ask their students to
- Examine the anti-literacy laws from the Chronicling America articles. What are the different punishments for white perpetrators versus persons of color? Why might there be different punishments for the same crime?
- Read pages 5 and 6 of Reminiscences by Susie King Taylor as well as the interviews in the Library’s collections detailing experiences with underground education. What do students notice about their education? Why did they have to go to school in this way?
- Free write. Why do students believe education of slaves was so dangerous to those in power? What are some reasons education is or isn’t powerful? Is it worth fighting for?
Please share any insights from your students in the comments.
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