Author: Antonio T. Bly

associate professor of history at Appalachian State University and, with Tamia Haygood, the author of Escaping Servitude: A Documentary History of Servants in Colonial Virginia (2015)

Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia

A relatively small number of enslaved African Americans in Virginia learned to read and write, either on their own or at the behest of their masters. As many as 5 percent of slaves may have been literate by the start of the American Revolution (1775–1783), their educations often tied to religious instruction. Many slaveholders viewed Christian teaching as their duty, and converts to the Church of England were required to be literate enough to read a catechism. The Anglican bishop Edmund Gibson and the minister Dr. Thomas Bray both promoted slave education in America with the Associates of Dr. Bray founding a number of schools, including in Williamsburg and Fredericksburg. Virginia law never explicitly prohibited the education of slaves, but in the years after Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800), the General Assembly made it more difficult. Elite whites worried that slaves who could read and write could travel through white society more easily and be exposed to ideas of freedom, making them more inclined to rebel. The gathering of slaves for the purpose of education was prohibited, so individuals stole away to learn on their own, often at great personal risk. During the antebellum period, the percentage of literate slaves had doubled to 10 percent. The laws became even stricter after Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831—Turner was a literate preacher—but during and after the American Civil War (1861–1865) freedpeople quickly established their own schools. Literacy rates rose to 30 percent and then, by 1910, to as high as 70 percent.

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