Literacy and Religious Instruction
From the earliest days of the, there was a strong connection between the literacy of enslaved people and religion. Many enslavers 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 —the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free white father—after she proved that she had been baptized. Enslavers who considered teaching their enslaved laborers 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 a person’s enslavement or freedom to “the condition of the mother,” and in 1667 the assembly as an avenue to freedom. According to lawmakers, “masters” were now free to “more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity.”
By 1680 such laws might have produced an unanticipated consequence in that some enslaved people, in addition to learning how to read, had also taught themselves how to write. That may explain why that year, the House of Burgessesit 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.”
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, which observed that many African Americans were “rather fond and desirous of being made Christians.” He argued that, in spite of their enslavers’ apprehensions, greater zeal should be taken in the education of enslaved people. “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 enslaved people to read, as 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, enslaved people could also realize their primary purpose in life, “namely to glorifie and serve God.”
Letter to Bishop Edmund Gibson
In 1723, anwas written to the new bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, by one or more enslaved people 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 enslaved people 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.”
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 enslaved people and. 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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people. 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.”
Advertisements for Runaways
In addition to church records, advertisements for enslaved people who had fled slavery provide evidence that some had learned to read and write. Between 1736 and 1776, approximately 1,000 fugitive-slave notices appeared in the Virginia Gazette, 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 enslaved people 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. That number grew by the 1750s. Around the same time, the colony’s enslaved population nearly doubled, and 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 plantation ofin July 1774. A member of the , Burwell placed an 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 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 enslaved people 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 in 1701. In keeping with the prophet Isaiah’s injunction to “seek ye out the book of the Lord, and read,” the Associates of Dr. Bray established schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia that provided enslaved people with 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.
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. It closed during the winter of 1769–1770 due to low enrollment and hostility from local enslavers. All the Bray schools in America had closed by 1776.
Bee, then owned by, a member of the , 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, “the true Spelling of Words” and how to pronounce “& read distinctly.” The Associates of Dr. Bray believed that enslavers had a Christian obligation to provide reading instruction, especially to those who had been born in the colony.
Approximately 200 mostly urban enslaved people and a few free Blacks in and around Williamsburg were educated at the Bray school in classes of between 20 and 30, with their numbers fairly evenly divided between boys and girls. About forty students attended the Fredericksburg school. Asfrom a Virginia clergyman to the Associates of Dr. Bray revealed, African-born enslaved people 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 had enslaved schoolmasters. Adam Dickie, the minister of Drysdale Parish in King and Queen County, taught several enslaved people, some of whom he trusted to teach others. In 1732, the parson boasted that he had fourteen enslaved people in his congregation who “could answer for themselves and repeat the Catechism very distinctly.” Two years later, he circulated books from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to those enslaved people “he thought most diligent and desirous to read.” Jonathan Boucher, a minister in Hanover Parish, King George County, also employed enslaved 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,” hein a letter to the Associates of Dr. Bray, “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 Literate Enslaved People
While many white Virginians believed that literacy was necessary for the religious conversion of enslaved people, they also feared the consequences of such an education. For one, an enslaved person’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 to, and, therefore, in need of guidance from, white men. For another, the education of enslaved people risked exposing them to ideas of human equality that circulated during the American Revolution. Virginia enslavers worried that their slaves, armed with such ideas, might rebel. And enslaved people who could write could forge documents allowing them to move more freely.
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 enslaved participants, 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.”
In addition, skilled slaves were often, 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 represented a threat to many white Virginians. In the aftermath of the conspiracy that bore his name, the General Assembly that attempted to make such an uprising 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 all enslaved people from gathering together at night—at churches, meetinghouses, or anywhere else—under any pretext. Although the law did not explicitly connect such gatherings with enslaved people 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, however, was not expressly prohibited. In 1805, the General Assemblyits earlier law prohibiting the gathering of enslaved people to clarify that it was not intended to prevent enslavers from taking their enslaved people to church. In 1819, the assembly further clarified the law, banning enslaved people from “any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night.” It continued to be legal for enslavers to instruct enslaved people outside of schools, churches, and meetinghouses, and some enslavers believed that literacy increased an enslaved person’s value. Most enslavers, however, . Still, many of their enslaved people often took great risks to educate themselves.
“I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read,”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(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. Born enslaved 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 enslaved Virginians, he used literacy to with his extended family. When not recounting parties and gossip inside and outside of church, Washington wrote Annie Gordon, a free Black girl several years his junior, love letters and flirtatious notes. An enslaved Virginia woman named Maria Perkins wrote her husband Richard lamenting the .
Sundays proved to be perhaps the most advantageous days for learning. They afforded enslaved Virginians such as Washington, Perkins, and Sumler some time off for religious observance and a chance to steal away to read and write. Most enslavers preached from the New Testament, but songs of enslaved people document a preference for the Old Testament. Instead of messages of subservience and obedience, enslaved people throughout Virginia favored reading and singing about deliverance and faith.
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 enslaved 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.”
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 enslaved people, free African Americans, and at least one white indentured servant in the bloodiest revolt of enslaved people in U.S. history, the General Assembly expressed concerns about the education of the enslaved.
Revising the 1819 law prohibiting the education of enslaved people, the assembly“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 Blacks or “mulattoes” to read or write were fined fifty dollars or twice that amount if they were caught instructing enslaved people. To discourage such meetings, they continued to threaten corporal punishment. But these efforts were ultimately in vain; enslaved people continued to learn to read and write.
Aftermath of the Nat Turner Slave Revolt
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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people 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.”