The Role of Education in Slavery Era

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The right to education was one that had to be earned for blacks in the United States of America. Events such as Brown vs. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges helped advance the right of black students to receive an education alongside their white counterparts. Yet nearly a century prior, during the slavery era, blacks were outlawed from learning to read, write, or learn in any capacity. Education allows for additional opportunities and more efficient communication. The role of education during the slavery era helped advance the progression of blacks obtaining their freedom.

America during the slavery era is well-known and one of the lowest points of this countrys history. Between 1525 and 1866, over 388,000 slaves were brought over from Africa to what is now called America (Gates Jr., September 20, 2013.) Slaves were used as free labor around plantations and were subjected to beatings, rapes, lynchings, and other forms of abuse if the did not comply with their owners. Blacks were not considered citizens for a significant portion of this era and were subsequently denied rights that white citizens had including owning land, businesses, earning an income for their work, and the right to learn to read and write (Carson, 2018.) The denial of education to blacks was a strategic plan by white slave owners and the government to keep the institution of slavery going. There were several laws passed during the slavery era to prevent blacks from receiving an education.

One of the first laws was passed in the state of Missouri in 1819 and and this law explicitly stated that white citizen were not allowed to teach slaves how to read or write. By 1847, Missouri made this law even stricter and prohibited whites to teach any black, whether a slave or freeman, how to read or write. Nearly a decade after Missouri banned slaves from reading or writing, Georgia mirrored this law and made the offense punishable by imprisonment and fines. Georgias laws also became stricter by broadening the law to apply to all blacks in 1829. Georgias updated laws also prevented freed blacks to work in any job position that required reading and writing which significantly limited their employment opportunities even further than they were before.

The trend of preventing blacks from reading and writing continued throughout the southern states in states such as Alabama and Virginia (Bruce, 1999.) The outlaw of reading and writing for blacks in America was done in order to keep whites in control. Those in control of the government officers during the slavery era had high chances of being slave owners themselves. By passing laws that prevented slaves from secretly communicating without verbal communication, the chances of rebellions and escapes were decreased dramatically (Carson, 2018.) This was a strategic method by slave owners and politicians in the south because slaves were their main source of income. Blacks, despite their status of freedom, were viewed as property instead of citizens during this time. By keeping slaves in order and unable to organize efficiently, slave owners believed that slaves would continue to do the work that they required and bring in income to the plantation.

The inability to read or write also had additional downfalls. Without a person willing to risk their lives to teach blacks how to read or write, or blacks hearing of information through word-of-mouth, they were left in the dark on several issues. During the slavery era, laws were constantly being passed to promote the slavery industry. Although blacks were not allowed to vote at the time, it was crucial that they stayed up to date on laws so that they would not unknowingly violate them and risk jail or harsher punishment. The inability to read or write was detrimental to blacks, specifically in the south, and may have led to additional unnecessary punishment of blacks. The drawbacks of illiteracy continued for blacks even if they escaped or were released from slavery. The lack of education affected freedman, or escaped slaves, just as much as it affected slaves.

If illiterate slaves managed to escape, they were unable to read directions or understand where they were without assistance from literate allies or slaves. This was an issue because slaves needed to be aware of where they were to understand whether they were in a slave or free state. Along with this, once they successfully got to an area where slavery was outlawed, they were disqualified from many jobs. Even in Northern states, illiterate blacks continued to suffer. Despite slavery being illegal in northern states, this did not mean that racism was not present. It was difficult for blacks to find well paying jobs solely based on skin color but being unqualified for professional jobs increased the socioeconomic status between blacks and whites (Gates Jr., September 17, 2013.) Jobs that required reading and writing were unable to hire saves due to them being a liability. This inability to find work had subsequent effects even in northern states such as not being able to afford to purchase a home or start a business. This disparity also reflected in the education system.

Many slaves had the impression that escaping to the North would solve all of their problems, however this was not the case. Although there were no laws prohibiting educating blacks in the north, schools built for white students did not accept blacks. Blacks who wanted to learn still had to rely on other blacks or on white allies who did not express racism (Gates Jr., September 17, 2013.) One of the last detriments to the lack of education was the difficult process of relocating family members that blacks had been torn away from. The inability to read and write caused many slaves to spell their first and surnames differently and this increased difficulty in tracking down their kin. In spite of the regulations of blacks obtaining educations, black leaders found ways to learn to read and write and use their knowledge to advance the black race.

Frederick Douglass has gone down in black history as a revolutionaries and a key component in the journey to black liberation in America. After being betrayed by a fellow slave during his first escape attempt, Douglass was jailed and sent to Baltimore, Maryland as punishment. His second escape was a success and landed him in the colony of New York. While here, Douglass still had to fight hard to avoid slave catchers. He eventually relocated to Massachusetts with his wife and began to advocate against the institution of slavery. His followers raised enough money to help him purchase his freedom so that he could speak out more publicly and a political figure for abolitionist (Klein, 2013.) Douglass had one of the more fortunate stories during the slavery era and this may be contributed due to his ability to read and write.

Many hurdles throughout Frederick Douglasss life as both a slave and a freeman were made less difficult due to his ability to read. Douglass shared his experiences of education in his autobiography My Bondage and my Freedom. In this work, he shared that during his time as a slave with the Auld family. His master's wife secretly taught him but once the master found out of their secret lessons, he ordered her to immediately stop stating that teaching a slave to read would make him forever unfit to be a slave (Douglass, 2000.) This phrase insinuated that the slave owner was well aware that if Douglass or any other slave learned to read, they would no longer comply with the demands of slavery. Regardless of his masters and mistresses disapproval of his learning, he found a way to continue his lessons.

The determination that Douglass showed towards furthering his education put himself and those around him at risk of negative consequences. However, he continued to use his free time to get small reading lessons from the dictionary from his white counterparts in exchange for bread. The ability to read and write opened many doors for Douglass including the ability to read the book The Columbian Orator. This book involved a passage in which a slave and his master had a debate on the necessity of the institution of slavery. The slaves well thought out and logical answers to his owners arguments sparked the fire in Douglass to become an abolitionist (Douglass, 2000.) Had Douglass not been able to read, he may have never been as inspired to speak out against the institution of slavery. The ability to read also helped other slaves in their journey to freedom.

The life of Harriet Jacobs reflected that of Frederick Douglass. She also had a relatively positive experience as a slave in regards to her ability to learn how to read and write when compared to illiterate slaves. At an early age, Jacobs had a mistress that was willing to teach her skill sets such as sewing and reading. Unfortunately, this mistress passed away at an early age and resulted in Jacobs being transferred to much stricter masters (Jacobs, 2003.) Her eventual escape allowed her to work with those who also knew Frederick Douglass. Her supporters also helped her purchase her freedom so that she would no longer have to sneak around as a fugitive slave. The motivation to better the lives of herself and her children were correlated with her determination to achieve freedom.

Harriet Jacobs completed a feat in which many could not, she escaped. For several years in her life, she lived in a small crawl space to avoid being captured by her owner. She eventually escaped this crawl space and made her way up North. Jacobs wrote her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in which she constantly shared her desire to help her children obtain their education (Jacobs, 2003.) This book is credited as one of the first documented accounts of the sexual harassment and abuse that black, slave women suffered through. Jacobs contributions to the documentation of slavery left a lasting impact on the way historians interpreted the time period. Along with documenting her experiences, she also was a vocal activist during the abolition movement and helped raise money for blacks who were freed during this time with no financial support (Harriet Jacobs n.d.) Education was a necessary element in the progression of blacks in America during and after the slavery era.

The role that education had in the slavery era was evident. Without having the capability to read or write, blacks were put at an even higher level of disadvantage. The ability to organize, secretly communicate, understand their surroundings and advance financially were all limited by their inability to read and write. Slaves such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs used their educational skills to fight towards emancipation and the end of the slavery era. White slave owners and politicians put their best efforts forward to prevent the education of the black race, however the strong determination of blacks to destroy slavery prevailed. 

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The Role Of Education In Slavery Era. (2019, May 15). Retrieved July 17, 2024 , from

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