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June 7, 2024

How has anti-literacy manifested since slavery?

“Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot,” Frederick Douglass.

Earlier this year, Reading Partners released the blog post, “Literacy as the path to freedom: How slaveowners purposefully kept enslaved people illiterate.” In it, we discussed the duplicitous nature of slaveowners and how it was in their best interest to keep those who were enslaved illiterate so that they would not gain their autonomy or challenge the institution of slavery. 

Slavery came to an informal end after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. It wouldn’t be until after the Civil War, on June 19th, 1858, that the institution of slavery was formally abolished in all states. Retroactively referred to as “Juneteenth,” this date symbolized when federal troops made their way to Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people were freed.

The end of slavery, however, did not spell the end of racism. Nor did it erase the pervading racist sentiments held by many white citizens against Black people and other people of color. Those in power in Southern states did everything in their control to maintain the control they had civically and socially, upholding racist practices and continuing the denial of the civil rights of Black people. One of the most effective ways they did so was by suppressing the Black vote in order to further their disenfranchisement. 

It’s important to consider how the ramifications of slavery lasted for decades after slavery was formally abolished, effectively limiting African Americans’ right to engage in a democratic system that they fought so hard to be a part of. 

black women fighting for the right to vote; anti-literacy lawsSource: National Museum of African American History and Culture


After the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified, the stakes of the Civil War significantly changed. The institution of slavery, which played a large part in the construction of the United States as well as the basis for much of the South’s economic, political, and social life, was now in question. As the war came to a close, days before he was assassinated, President Abraham Lincoln expanded on the proclamation’s intent, suggesting that Black people receive limited suffrage. His successor, Andrew Johnson, however, would actually lead the United States into a time of reconstruction. 

Andrew Johnson was a large proponent of states’ rights and believed that the federal government should not be involved in how states entered reconstruction. This latitude led to a scenario in which formerly Confederate Southern states liberally exercised their states’ rights and upheld white supremacist practices. State legislatures found a loophole in the 13th Amendment (1865), which prohibited slavery and servitude in all circumstances except as a punishment for crime. This resulted in Southern States passing the Black Codes in order to criminalize Black Americans, forcing them back into servitude. 


The Black Codes

The Black Codes were restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished. This set of laws, written in a colorblind fashion and applicable to everyone, was in practice only ever enforced for Black people. The Black Codes could be seen as a continuation of slavery as they were likewise used to oppress, disrupt, and deny Black people their independence, autonomy, and civil rights.

Throughout much of the South, laws were put into place, such as the Mississippi Black Code of 1865, which outlawed “vagrancy,” or the act of being unemployed. Essentially, not having a job became a punishable offense. Black people from Mississippi were required to have written evidence of upcoming employment each January to avoid being arrested and forced to forfeit earlier wages on account of vagrancy.

Similarly, South Carolina’s ‘Black Code’, ruled that Black people could not hold any occupation other than farmer or servant. Black people who were found to be employed in another profession such as a mechanic, artisan, or shopkeeper, would be forced to pay an annual tax of $10 or $100. Other aspects of daily life, such as using offensive language in the presence of a white woman, gambling, or drinking, were all now illegal but only enforced for Black people. 

Source: National Geographic

How Jim Crow Laws suppressed Black people’s right to vote

Jim Crow laws, not to be confused with the Black Codes, were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Following the ratification of the 15th Amendment (1869), all male citizens had the right to vote – no one could be denied this right on the basis of their race. Under this new amendment, racist lawmakers were forced to pivot and use new methods to enforce white supremacy and exclude Black men from voting.

Southern states began implementing new laws and requirements, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white primary elections, felony disenfranchisement laws, and grandfather clauses, in order to deter and intimidate Black Americans from going to polls. It was in practice, legal discrimination, continuing the legacy of former slaveowners preventing Black people from participating in democracy.

Anti-literacy laws had been in place since the inception of slavery and were a primary method of denying Black men the right to vote under the 15th Amendment’s changes. In 1880, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, 76 percent of southern African Americans were illiterate, a rate of 55 percent points greater than that for southern white people. In 1900, 50 percent of voting-aged Black men could not read, compared to 12 percent of voting-aged white men. This reality made literacy tests one of the most effective tools for silencing the African American vote.

On top of literacy tests, voting clerks acted as further insurance for white policymakers to exclude Black men from voting. A voting clerk could require a person to answer every single question on a literacy test correctly or answer a large sum of questions in an unreasonable amount of time in order to pass the test. While not on the surface a discriminatory practice, voting clerks had the power to choose who would be required to complete these extra tests and used that power to fail Black citizens at the polls.

White people were often also excused from passing literacy tests based on the Grandfather Clause, a clause stating that one could not vote unless their grandfather had voted. For white people, this meant absolutely nothing – their grandfather had had the right to vote. But for an enslaved person who had recently become free, whose grandfather was also likely a slave or a noncitizen, this clause prevented Black men from voting based on a factor they had absolutely no control over. The Grandfather Clause made the achievement of passing a literacy test a moot point.

black americans fighting for the right to vote; anti-literacy lawsSource: The Atlantic


In the course of American history, the end of slavery occurred relatively recently–less than 200 years ago. Its ramifications, though, still inform an overwhelming amount of current U.S. politics, the justice system, and social life. The U.S. government is forever stained by its history of anti-Blackness and racist policies meant to keep only certain groups of people as second-class citizens. The U.S. Constitution may have been a “glorious liberty document,” but it was written assuming only white people would be able to exercise such rights. 

Reading Partners believes in providing all learners with equal access to quality literacy support through our pursuit of social justice. To us, reading is a civil right. Literacy rates can serve as a litmus test to understand whether a certain community or group is being oppressed. And when a group’s ability to read is limited, their ability to exercise all their civil rights and participate in democracy is called into question. 

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