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March 25, 2024

Literacy as the path to freedom: How slaveowners purposefully kept enslaved people illiterate

Literacy is broadly defined as one’s ability to read and write. Illiteracy, naturally, is the opposite—the inability to read and write and the lack of knowledge connected to this inability. Since our founding in 1999, Reading Partners has worked to combat illiteracy by empowering children with the foundational reading skills they deserve to succeed both in school and beyond. 

Restricting access to literacy education for certain groups has a long-standing place in U.S. history, especially as a tool to purposely disrupt and damage the African-American community and deny them their civil rights and ability to exercise their own autonomy. 

Techniques employed by slave-owners during times of slavery can in many ways be viewed as the beginnings of anti-literacy practices and laws in the US, and pointed to as one of the many reasons why those from marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by a lack of literacy support and resources even to this day. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 17 percent of Black students, and 21 percent of Hispanic students are able to read proficiently by the fourth grade. Whereas the nationwide average for fourth grade reading proficiency is 32 percent. 

How, and most importantly why, were practices against literacy established? 

a black student reads a book in a reading center, fighting illiteracy

Slavery and illiteracy in the United States

Slavery is “the practice or institution of holding people as chattel involuntarily and under [the] threat of violence.” In the United States, slavery was explicitly racist and primarily targeted Africans and African Americans under the guise that they were inherently inferior to their white counterparts. Enslaved people were forced to work tirelessly on small farms, on plantations, and within houses, contributing to the construction of the United States in pivotal ways. 

The institution of antebellum slavery was also facilitated by slave owners using non-physical methods of dehumanization against enslaved people. One of these many methods included maintaining a lack of literacy, or instilling illiteracy, among enslaved people. 

Literacy as a threat to slave owners

Slave owners often restricted their slaves’ knowledge of the smallest, most inconspicuous information, such as an enslaved person’s age, birth parents, or even family origin. White slaveholders did not want their slaves to know anything about or understand their personal identity.

This information was the first step towards literacy, which slaveholders feared would empower enslaved people to recognize the dehumanization and manipulation that they were being subjected to. Without the ability to read and write, any “ignorant” slave, as viewed by slave owners, could not question the morality of slavery or be able to seek out information that would make them question the institution. This knowledge could then embolden enslaved people to coordinate elaborate escapes in the short term, as well as in due time, organize and rise up against their oppressors and demand justice. 

The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass and taking literacy back

the cover of the book: a narrative of the life of frederick douglassFrederick Douglass, a famed abolitionist who was able to escape enslavement, dedicated his free life to championing emancipation as well as giving enslaved people access to education. Douglass himself had no formal education. Despite this, he made it his life’s goal to become literate after first learning the alphabet at the age of 12. 

In the first of his eventual three autobiographies, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass outlined not only how he became literate, but also the methods used by slave owners in order to keep slaves illiterate, thus keeping them submissive and obedient. The threat of physical and psychological trauma was used liberally against enslaved people in order to keep them from fighting back or running away. 

Douglass learned at a young age that it was dangerous for Black people, and especially enslaved people, to know how to read and write. After Hugh Auld, one of Douglass’s slave-masters, learned that his wife Sophie had been teaching Douglass how to read, he turned irate.

Between 1740 and 1867, anti-literacy laws in the United States prohibited enslaved, and sometimes free, Black Americans from learning to read or write. What Sophie Auld was doing was illegal at that time. Hugh Auld would tell his wife that teaching Douglass how to read, “Would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.”

This sentiment echoed through Douglass’s head as he continued pursuing literacy. In Baltimore around this time, it was said that the urban codes of slavery were less harsh than they were in rural Maryland. Douglass took advantage of this, using neighboring white children as his teachers by bartering pieces of bread in exchange for knowledge. He would intentionally mispronounce and misspell words so that these children would correct him, unknowingly bettering Douglass’s ability to read and write. Anecdotes such as these go to show the ingenuity of enslaved people, and how despite their situation, they were able to trick and leverage whatever knowledge they had to pursue literacy. 

This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.

Frederick Douglass

Learning from the past and looking to the future

sophie auld teaching frederick douglass to readThe ability to read is often taken for granted and, for a large part of U.S. history, has been seen as a privilege that certain groups should not have access to. 

Frederick Douglass notably said, “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birthday.” While on the surface, this can seem like a small piece of benign information, truths like these often come with much greater implications. That restriction of knowledge, or imposed illiteracy, was only one of the many practices the U.S. government facilitated in order for slave owners to dehumanize and manipulate their slaves and contributed to antebellum slavery lasting as long as it did.

Literacy was what gave enslaved people the ability to rebel against their owners. This planted the seeds for hundreds of eventual slave rebellions, ensuring that the Abolitionist Movement would last for decades to ensure the end of slavery and the liberation of enslaved people. Even generations later, without literacy, citizens aren’t able to fully navigate the modern world or make informed decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Reading Partners works to ensure that children are reading proficiently at grade level, helping establish base literacy and critical thinking skills that will carry on with them in all aspects of their lives. Whether it be helping them pursue a degree, enter the workforce, navigate personal relationships, or practice financial literacy, literacy is a language everyone deserves to speak and share with each other.

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