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.

Literacy and Religious Instruction

The Booke of Common prayer

From the earliest days of the Virginia colony, there was a strong connection between the literacy of slaves and religion. Many slaveholders and clergymen believed it was their duty to convert enslaved African Americans to Christianity and sometimes used the promise of such conversions as a justification for slavery. Religious instruction, however, often involved catechism, thus requiring some degree of literacy among potential converts. This was complicated by common-law norms that equated Christian baptism and freedom. In 1656, for instance, a Virginia court awarded freedom to the enslaved woman Elizabeth Key—the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free white father—after she proved that she had been baptized. Slaveholders who considered teaching their slaves to read the Bible may have been discouraged from doing so by such a ruling. Two laws changed that, however. In 1662, the General Assembly connected a person’s enslavement or freedom to “the condition of the mother,” and in 1667 the assembly removed baptism as an avenue to freedom. According to lawmakers, “masters” were now free to “more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity.”

By 1680 their efforts might have produced an unanticipated consequence in that some slaves, in addition to learning how to read, had also taught themselves how to write. That may explain why that year, the House of Burgesses declared it unlawful “for any negro … to goe or depart from his master’s ground without a certificate from his master, mistress or overseer.” That is to say, in the absence of proper written consent, slaves could be taken up as runaways and could receive “twenty lashes on the bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer.”

The Negro's & Indians Advocate

In 1660, Virginia’s population of 27,020 included only 950 blacks, enslaved or free, and according to Morgan Godwyn, few of them received religious instruction in spite of changes to the law. Godwyn was an Anglican minister who served first in Virginia and then in Barbados between 1665 and 1680. Upon his return to England, he published the pamphlet Negro’s and Indians Advocate , which observed that many African Americans were “rather fond and desirous of being made Christians.” He argued that, in spite of their masters’ apprehensions, greater zeal should be taken in the education of slaves. “Being myself fully persuaded,” he wrote, “God will assuredly make good his Promise to the World, of causing his Gospel to be published … I do here tender to the Public this Plea both for the Christianizing of our Negro’s and other Heathen in those Plantations.”

By “Christianizing,” Godwyn meant teaching slaves to read. As early as the 1660s, reading had become a fundamental part of catechizing new parishioners in England. “As soon as memorizing was going well,” the historian Ian Green has explained, “the focus was shifted to comprehension.” Increasingly, “we find catechetical authors either associating literacy with learning a catechism or assuming that those using a form would already be literate.” And with that “thorow knowledge of [Christian] Principles,” Godwyn declared, slaves could also realize their primary purpose in life, “namely to glorifie and serve God.”

Letter to Bishop Edmund Gibson

Edmund Gibson

In 1723, an anonymous letter was written to the new bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, by one or more slaves in Virginia. The letter is dated August 4 at the beginning and September 8 at the end, and employs both the first-person singular and first-person plural. “Wee darer nott Subscribe any mans name to this,” the letter reads, “for feare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the gallas tree.” How the document was transported to London is unknown. The letter pleads with the bishop to “Releese us out of this Cruell Bondegg” and also requests that slaves in Virginia be educated. In particular, the writers request that “our childarn may be broatt up in the way of the Christian faith.” They not only ask to be taught to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the creed, and the Ten Commandments but also that their children be sent “to Scool and Larnd to Reed through the Bybell.”

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

Gibson was a member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, founded by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Bray in 1701 and charged with ministering abroad, especially to slaves and Native Americans. Not long after taking office, the bishop distributed a seventeen-question “Paper of Enquiries” to the Anglican clergy in North America. He asked about the size of congregations, how services were conducted, and—perhaps influenced by the Virginia letter, which he had just received—whether “there are any Infidels, bond or free, within your Parish; and what means are used for their conversion?”

At the time Virginia had fifty-four parishes; responses from twenty-eight have survived. They suggest that only a modest number of slaves received an education; that most who did were born in America; that their instruction was connected to religious conversion; and that reading was an essential part of that instruction. Indeed, extant birth and baptism records suggest that slaves mastered reading before receiving the rite of baptism.

“We’ve no infidels, that are free,” reported Henry Collins, the rector of Saint Peter’s Parish, in New Kent County, “but a great many Negro-bondslaves; some of which are suffered by the respective Masters to be baptized … but others are not.” The parson’s observation matches the historical record. During the 1720s, only 15 percent of the 283 slaves whose births had been recorded by Saint Peter’s were subsequently baptized. George Robertson, the rector of Bristol Parish in James City County, expressed similar sentiments. “Some masters instruct Slaves at home or bring them to baptism,” he wrote, “but not many.” In his parish, no more than 7 percent of enslaved infants were baptized during the 1720s.

Other clerics reported some success in providing religious instruction. William Black, the rector of Accomako Parish, on the Eastern Shore, wrote that since his arrival in 1709 he had baptized about 200 slaves. William LeNeve, the rector of James City Parish, told the bishop that he had “examined and improved several Negroes natives of Virginia” and that he hoped to “plant that seed among them, w[hi]ch will produce a blessed Harvest.” Francis Fontaine, the rector of York-Hampton Parish, was more precise, reporting, “I know of no Infidels in my Parish except Slaves. I exhort their Master to send them to me to be instructed. And in Order to their Conversion I have set a part every Saturday in the afternoon and Catechize them at my Glebe house.” John Cargill, the rector of Southwark Parish, in Surry County, mentioned a school for Indians in his parish. “As to ye Negro slaves there,” he wrote, “some of their Masters on whom I do prevail to have ye baptized: I taught, but not many.”

In a public reply to the letters he had received, Gibson encouraged “the Schoolmasters in several Parishes, parts of whose Business it is to instruct Youth in the Principles of Christianity … [carry] on this Work … on the Lord’s Day, when both they and the Negroes are most at Liberty.”

Slave Advertisements

In addition to church records, runaway slave advertisements provide evidence that some slaves learned to read and write. Between 1736 and 1776, approximately 1,000 fugitive-slave notices appeared in the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg. Of that number, 55 runaways, or more than 5 percent, were described as literate. In the first three years of the paper’s publication, 44 slaves were reported as having stolen themselves away. None, however, was reported as literate. But in the following decade, 1 of 33 was identified as educated. By the 1750s that number grew. Around the same time the colony’s slave population nearly doubled, 3 of 72 runaways were noted as being literate. In the 1760s, 16 out of 233 runaways, or 6.8 percent, had learned to read and write. By the time the colony declared independence, 35 of 648 runaways, or 5.4 percent, had achieved literacy.

Among that number was Isaac Bee, who fled from the Mecklenburg County estate of Lewis Burwell in July 1774. A member of the House of Burgesses, Burwell placed an advertisement in the September 8 issue of the Virginia Gazette calling for the return of “a likely Mulatto Lad named ISAAC BEE.” He described Bee as eighteen to nineteen years old and the son of a “Freeman” and therefore someone who “thinks he has a Right to his Freedom.” Burwell worried that Bee would pass as a freeman and noted that “he can read, but I do not know that he can write; however, he may easily get some One to forge a Pass for him.”

Although the percentage of fugitives who both appeared in advertisements and were literate was small, the percentage of literate fugitives who could both read and write was high: 62 percent. Thus, while Burwell was not certain as to whether Bee had learned to write, he had good reason to believe that other enslaved people had learned and would help create a pass allowing him to travel freely.

Bray Schools in Virginia

Isaac Bee and a relative handful of other slaves in Virginia were educated in Bray schools. The Associates of Dr. Bray was a philanthropic group founded in 1724 by the Anglican clergyman Thomas Bray, who had already established the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1699 and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in 1701. In keeping with the prophet Isaiah’s injunction to “seek ye out the book of the Lord, and read,” the Associates established schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia that provided enslaved people Christian instruction through biblical literacy. As in Bray’s other groups, reading represented a central aspect of the Associates’ mission and was seen as an instrument of reform.

Fielding Lewis

The school in Williamsburg operated at various locations from 1760 to 1774. It employed a single teacher and was overseen by a number of people, including successive presidents of the College of William and Mary. A similar school opened in Fredericksburg in 1765 and was run by the merchant Fielding Lewis. It closed during the winter of 1769–1770 due to low enrollment and hostility from local slaveholders. All the Bray schools in America had closed by 1776.

Bee, then owned by John Blair, a member of the governor’s Council, was enrolled at the Williamsburg school in December 1764. The extant roster indicates that he began attending the school at age seven. Under the guidance of the teacher Anne Wager, he and his sister Clara learned the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the catechism. Initially their lessons involved recitation and memorization. As they progressed, they learned “the true Spelling of Words” and how to pronounce “& read distinctly.” The Associates believed that slaveholders had a Christian obligation to provide reading instruction, especially to those who had been born in the colony.

Dudley Digges House

As many as 400 mostly urban slaves and a few free blacks in and around Williamsburg were educated at the Bray school. They attended in classes of between 20 and 30, with their numbers fairly evenly divided between boys and girls. Perhaps as few as 40 or 50 students attended the Fredericksburg school. As a letter from a Virginia clergyman to the Associates revealed, African-born slaves were not considered to be good candidates for biblical literacy because they were thought to be too unfamiliar with Western languages.

In addition to the Fredericksburg and Williamsburg schools, a number of unofficial Bray schools operated in the colony. Most were run by churchwardens who usually also served as the schoolmasters. Two of these schools used slaves as schoolmasters. Adam Dickie, the minister of Drysdale Parish in King and Queen County, taught several slaves, some of whom he trusted to teach others. In 1732, the parson boasted that he had fourteen slaves in his congregation who “could answer for themselves and repeat the Catechism very distinctly.” Two years later, he circulated SPG books to those slaves “he thought most diligent and desirous to read.” Jonathan Boucher, a minister in Hanover Parish, King George County, also employed slaves as teachers. I “employed the services of a literate Negro slave,” he explained, “who lived nearby to teach his fellow brethren how to read.” When he relocated to Caroline County in 1764, Boucher continued the practice. “The Method I take,” he wrote in a letter to the Associates, “I hope They will think is not misapplying it, I generally find out an old Negro … able to read, to whom I give Books, with an Injunction to Them to instruct such & such Slaves in their respective Neighbourhoods.”

Fear of Slave Literacy

While many white Virginians believed that literacy was necessary for the religious conversion of slaves, they also feared the consequences of such an education. For one, a slave’s ability to read and write contradicted one of the ideological foundations of slavery—the idea that Africans and African Americans were intellectually and morally inferior and, therefore, in need of guidance by white men. For another, the education of slaves risked exposing them to ideas of human equality that circulated during the American Revolution. Virginia slaveholders worried that their slaves, armed with such ideas, might rebel.

Response to Garbriel's Conspiracy

Those concerns were not unfounded. During the spring and summer of 1800 dozens of enslaved men in and around Richmond concocted a plan to kill their masters and other white people, seize Governor James Monroe, and burn Richmond. Gabriel’s Conspiracy, as the plot came to be known, was betrayed at the last moment and its participants seized. Twenty-six slaves were hanged and eight more sold out of state. Testimony at the trials suggests that a number of slaves, including Gabriel, George Smith, and Sam Byrd Jr., could read and write. They forged passes in order to travel from plantation to plantation, kept lists of the names of conspirators, and planned to sew a flag bearing the words “death or liberty.”

Literacy allowed enslaved men and women a limited ability to move about and provided them some access to written ideas. In addition, skilled slaves were often hired out, enhancing their exposure to a variety of people and perhaps giving them greater access to notions of freedom and liberty. As a literate blacksmith regularly hired out by his master, Gabriel may have represented a threat to many white Virginians, and in the aftermath of the conspiracy that bore his name, the General Assembly passed new restrictions that attempted to make such an event less likely in the future. Most, however, focused on the role of free Blacks in the conspiracy and did not address the education of slaves. In January 1804, the assembly prohibited all slaves from gathering together at night—at churches, meetinghouses, or anywhere else—under any pretext. Although the law did not explicitly connect such gatherings with slaves learning to read or write, it was implied in part because much of that learning took place in churches at night.

The education of slaves, meanwhile, was not expressly prohibited. In 1805, the General Assembly updated its earlier law prohibiting the gathering of slaves to clarify that it was not intended to prevent masters from taking their slaves to church. In 1819, the assembly further clarified the law. In addition to being prohibited from gathering at meetinghouses, slaves were now banned from “any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night.” It continued to be legal for slaveholders to instruct their slaves outside of schools, churches, and meetinghouses, and some masters believed that literacy increased a slave’s value. Most slaveholders, however, resisted the impulse to educate. Still, many of their slaves worked hard and often took great risks to educate themselves.

Booker T. Washington

“I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read,” Booker T. Washington recalled in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, published in 1901. Washington was born enslaved about 1856 in Franklin County. “I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read.” To that end, he “induced” his “mother to get hold of a book” for him. “How or where she got it I do not know, but in some way she procured an old copy of Webster’s ‘blue-back’ spelling-book, which contained the alphabet, followed by such meaningless words as ‘ab,’ ‘ba,’ ‘ca,’ ‘da.’ I began at once to devour this book.”

In his memoir Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (1909), Thomas L. Johnson recalled that his mother had been his first teacher. “She taught me what she knew,” he wrote. “The whole of her education consisted in a knowledge of the Alphabet, and how to count [to] a hundred. She first taught me the Lord’s Prayer.” James W. Sumler, who escaped from Norfolk to Canada in 1855, told an interviewer that he also learned to read: “I hid in a hayloft on Sunday, and got the younger white children to teach me. I bought the book with a ninepence that a man gave me for holding his horse.”

Extant narratives and letters also demonstrate that enslaved Virginians used their ability to read and write for many ends. Born a slave in 1838 in Fredericksburg, John M. Washington learned to read from his mother Sarah Tucker. In his early teens, he taught himself to write. Like other Virginia slaves, he used literacy to communicate with his extended family. When not recounting parties and gossip inside and outside church, Washington wrote Annie Gordon, a free black girl several years his junior love letters and flirtatious notes. A Virginia slave woman named Maria Perkins wrote her husband Richard, lamenting the sale of their children.

Sundays proved to be perhaps the most advantageous days for learning. They afforded enslaved Virginians such as Washington, Perkins, Sumler, and others some time off for religious observance and a chance to steal away to read and write. Most masters preached from the New Testament, but slave songs document a preference for the Old Testament. Instead of messages of subservience and obedience, slaves throughout Virginia favored reading and singing about deliverance and faith.

Nat Turner

A particularly potent fusion of literacy and prophetic religion found a home in the enslaved preacher Nat Turner, of Southampton County. Born in 1800, the year of Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Turner came of age in a deeply religious slave community. He regularly attended church with his grandmother. By almost supernatural circumstances, he had learned to read and write. “The manner in which I learned to read and write,” he explained from his jail cell, “I acquired it with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet.” To the astonishment of his family and the local community, he began, at a relatively young age to read. “One day,” he noted, “when a book was shewn me to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects.”

Horrid Massacre in Virginia

However he learned, Turner’s education improved as he grew older. At age twenty-two, he underwent a series of spiritual visions through which, he believed, God spoke to him. Transfixed by images of blood-stained corn, hieroglyphic characters, and numbers he discovered in the woods, in addition to black and white apparitions fighting in the sky and his own reading of John the Apostle, Turner became convinced that “the great day of judgment was at hand” and that he was commissioned to destroy the wicked institution of slavery. On that day, in his mind, “the first should be last and the last should be first.” Months before Turner led a group of slaves, free African Americans, and at least one white indentured servant in the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history, the General Assembly expressed concerns about slave education.

Revising the 1819 law prohibiting slave education, the assembly declared “that all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any school house, church, meeting-house or other place for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be considered as an unlawful assembly.” Furthermore, sympathetic whites caught teaching free negroes or mulattoes to read or write were fined fifty dollars, or twice that sum if they were caught instructing slaves. To discourage such meetings, they continued to threaten corporal punishment. But these efforts were ultimately in vain; slaves continued to learn to read and write.

Aftermath of the Nat Turner Slave Revolt

In the aftermath of Turner’s failed revolt, the General Assembly debated whether to end slavery in Virginia altogether, deciding eventually to adopt legislation that more strictly regulated the behavior of the state’s enslaved population. Seven months after Turner and his party had been captured and hanged, the assembly outlawed slaves preaching at any time. Free blacks, mulattoes, and slaves were also prohibited from attending unsupervised meetings “held for religious purposes, or other instruction.” White ministers were forbidden from preaching to free blacks, mulattoes, or slaves without permission. Moreover, punishments were also prescribed for whites, free blacks, mulattoes, and slaves who were caught with written or printed materials that encouraged insurrection.


Despite the many social and legal obstacles, and indeed sometimes the physical risk, enslaved African Americans in Virginia learned to read and write. Sources ranging from runaway ads to archaeological finds suggest that as many as 5 percent of slaves learned to read before the American Revolution. Historians looking at ads and accounts by enslaved and formerly enslaved people believe that may have doubled to 10 percent during the antebellum era. This desire for an education connected slaves to Christian religion and the outside world, and it followed them to freedom. As Union armies arrived in Virginia in 1861, African Americans immediately began opening schools. They utilized black teachers and, over the years, an increasing number of white Northerners. Literacy rates rose accordingly, to 30 percent between the end of the war and the 1880s, and to 70 percent by 1910.

And always there was an insatiable desire to learn. Booker T. Washington recalled an elderly woman who “hobbled into the room where I was, leaning on a cane. She was clad in rags; but they were clean. She said: ‘Mr. Washin’ton, God knows I spent de bes’ days of my life in slavery. God knows I’s ignorant an’ poor… I knows you is tryin’ to make better men an’ better women for de coloured race. I ain’t got no money, but I wants you to take dese six eggs, what I’s been savin’ up, an’ I wants you to put dese six eggs into the eddication of dese boys an’ gals.”

July 21, 1656
The General Assembly releases "A Report of a Comittee from an Assembly Concerning the freedome of Elizabeth Key," ruling that the slave Elizabeth Key should be freed.
December 1662
In a newly passed law designed to clarify conditions by which people are enslaved or free, the General Assembly declares that "all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother."
The pamphlet Negro's & Indians Advocate by Morgan Godwyn is published in England.
June 8, 1680
The General Assembly passes "An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections," which prohibits slaves from arming themselves "with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon." In order to prevent public gatherings, the law prohibits slaves from leaving their masters' property without a certificate.
March 8, 1699
The Reverend Thomas Bray and four laymen found the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, a group that sends Anglican missionaries from Britain to its colonies.
June 16, 1701
King William III charters the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a group founded by the Reverend Thomas Bray.
August 4—September 8, 1723
An anonymous group of slaves pens a letter to Edmund Gibson, bishop of London.
January 15, 1724
The Associates of Dr. Bray, a group dedicated to educating the children of enslaved men and women in America, is founded.
September 29, 1760
The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school for the education of free and enslaved black children in Williamsburg.
December 1764
Thirty-three enslaved students are enrolled at the Bray school in Williamsburg.
April 1765
The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school in Fredericksburg for the education of slaves.
Winter 1769—1770
Fielding Lewis closes the Bray school in Fredericksburg.
September 8, 1774
Lewis Burwell advertises for the return of his slave Isaac Bee in the Virginia Gazette.
November 17, 1774
Robert Carter Nicholas reports that the Williamsburg Bray School's teacher has died and the school closed.
August 30, 1800
A planned slave revolt led by a blacksmith named Gabriel (owned by Thomas Prosser, of Henrico County) is thwarted when a huge storm delays the meeting of the conspirators and a few nervous slaves reveal the plot to their masters.
January 25, 1803
The General Assembly passes "An Act more effectually to restrain the practice of negroes going at large."
January 24, 1804
The General Assembly passes "An Act further declaring what shall be deemed unlawful meetings of slaves."
January 4, 1805
The General Assembly revises a law from the year before regarding "unlawful meetings of slaves."
March 2, 1819
The General Assembly passes an act that gathers and revises its laws governing slavery.
April 7, 1831
The General Assembly passes "An act to amend the act concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes."
August 21—22, 1831
Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet, leads the deadliest slave revolt in Virginia's history, which in just twelve hours leaves fifty-five white people dead in Southampton County.
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APA Citation:
Bly, Antonio. Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia. (2023, February 06). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slave-literacy-and-education-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Bly, Antonio. "Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (06 Feb. 2023). Web. 06 Feb. 2023
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