Posted in 19th century America, African Americans, education, Ku Klux Klan, law, marginalization, material culture, missionaries, paternalism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Heather Andrea Williams’ study emerged from one historical question: “What did ordinary African Americans in the South do to provide education for themselves during slavery and when slavery ended?”[1] Williams dispels common myths that African Americans did little to educate themselves while enslaved and that white Northern missionaries were chiefly responsible for educating emancipated slaves. Self-Taught claims that the fight for education was inseparable from the fight against slavery. Williams shows that enslaved and free African Americans highly regarded literacy for practical purposes (e.g., recording children’s births, reading the Bible), and as a means for freedom. Both before and after enslavement, African Americans organized to educate themselves, and in the wake of their newly found freedom, collectively pursued public education as a right, which positively influenced the overall development of public schools in the South. The sight of black adults and children filling schoolhouses inspired many whites to seek an education for themselves. But many white leaders worried that blacks would ultimately surpass poor whites and upset the traditional social order.[2] By declaring their right to public education, formerly enslaved people paved the way for state-funded education for all races in the 1800s.[3]

Williams’ first book is based on her 2002 dissertation from Yale University, “Self-Taught: The Role of African Americans in Educating the Freed People, 1861—1871.”  Before returning to graduate school, she served as an Assistant Attorney General and Section Chief for the State of New York and as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.[4]  Clearly, Williams’ legal background assisted her nuanced interpretation of evidence, which came from diverse archives, such as the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; U.S. Senate reports on the Ku Klux Klan; U.S. War Department 128 volume The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; and the American Missionary Association Manuscripts, 1839—1882. In addition, she scoured historical newspapers and periodicals published by sources that offered first-hand accounts, such as the American Missionary Association and black presses. Through detailed biographical descriptions, Williams invites her readers to enter into the captivating details of individuals’ lives and struggles.

Williams acknowledges the research that her study was built upon, most of which she challenges. In 1941, Henry Lee Swint was the first to write a monograph on the topic, The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1871. The book justified white southern hostilities towards black education, focusing mostly on how northern abolitionist beliefs disregarded the southern way of life.[5] Williams values the contributions of Robert C. Morris’ Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction (1981), but points out that it focuses more on missionary teachers than on freedpeople.[6] And Jaqueline Jones’ Soldiers of Light and Love (1980) showed African Americans as active participants in their education; however, the main focus of the book is on missionary teachers and their motivations for heading South to teach.[7] To balance these biased accounts, Williams crafts her narrative of the early stages of African American education from the perspective of slaves and free blacks.

The story is told in nine chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix that documents various antebellum statutes that prohibited teaching slaves and free blacks. The first three chapters are instrumental in setting the foundation for the rest of the book. Chapter 1, “In Secret Places,” explores what literacy meant to enslaved people and recounts how they achieved this goal against almost insurmountable odds. Williams mentions that many historians attribute antiliteracy legislation to Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831; however, she notes that it began a century earlier in 1739 in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion.[8] Fearing insurrection, southern legislatures implemented laws to prevent people from instructing slaves or free blacks to read and write. Around 1830, as southern states “ratcheted up their efforts to sustain a way of life that depended on slavery,” northern abolitionists shifted into action prompted by a North Carolina statute that articulated the connection between slave literacy and slave control.[9] Other states soon followed suit. Williams discloses how slaves developed superior listening and memory skills, which enabled them to share news through word of mouth. Slaves observed the intense surveillance and control related to their literacy skills, and recognized them as a means to freedom. Williams explores the ways African Americans stealthily grew literate and shared their skills with one another.

Chapter 2, “A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom,” follows African Americans out of slavery into contraband camps and freedpeople’s villages. Community leaders contacted Northern missionaries requesting their assistance. Williams presents the story from the vantage point of former slaves, challenging earlier studies framed solely by missionaries’ perspectives. Earlier works promoted the notion that newly freed slaves passively accepted their education from northern missions. In contrast, Williams reveals freedpeople’s motivations and drive for obtaining an education for themselves. They built and taught within their own schools, many times facing great risk of violence from white southerners. Benevolent societies, including the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association, often took credit for single-handedly educating former slaves. Although the resources provided by these groups were essential, many well-meaning reformers carried their racial misconceptions with them, which in turn, colored their interactions and resulting documentation of the events.

Chapter 3, “The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books: African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission,” also follows African Americans out of slavery, but this time, into the Union Army. Williams discusses the link between perceived manhood and soldiering. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, many African American men joined the Union Army in the hope of finding equal treatment, which they did not find. Literate men, however, were afforded elevated status within black communities. Central to Williams’ discussion are the men and women who were integral to the “teaching corps” for soldiers.[10] These soldiers helped to build and teach in schools across Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, and other states. Additionally, these teachers contributed thousands of dollars toward the founding of the Lincoln Institute, a permanent legacy for future generations. The most notable personality was Elijar Marrs, a self-taught slave who became a sergeant in the Union Army. Following the end of war, he became a teacher in Kentucky for thirty years, modeling the highest ideals of Williams’ study.

Chapters 4-9 focus on African American schools, students, and communities. Chapter 4, “We Must Get Education for Ourselves and our Children: Advocacy for Education,” examines the political organizing of newly freed people, revealing the importance of self-help and self-determination as community values. The chapter also traces early efforts to make education a civil right. Chapter 5, “We are Striving to do Business on our own Hook: Organizing Schools on the Ground,” explores how African Americans initially implemented their schools and the resulting conflicts with white northerners over their control. Chapter 6, “We are Laboring under Many Difficulties: African American Teachers in Freedpeople’s Schools,” exposes the struggle to secure adequate physical supplies and the fight to attain suitable levels of education for teachers. African American teachers in Georgia in 1866 are the main focus of the chapter.  Chapter 7, “A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge: Textbooks and Freedpeople’s Schools,” investigates the content and availability of textbooks for freedpeople’s schools. This chapter also examines the proslavery ideology taught to white children in Confederate States. The primary focus of chapter 8, “If Anybody Wants an Education, it is Me: Students in Freedpeople’s Schools,” is students’ motivations for attending school and their expectations of teachers. The chapter also focuses on how teachers assessed student intellect and potential. Finally, chapter 9, “First Movings of the Waters: The Creation of Common School Systems for Black and White Students,” traces how African Americans influenced white communities’ interest in education in the South.

The book concludes with a short summary of a 1911 study of black Southern schools by W. E. B. Du Bois and a team of researchers at Fisk University. Du Bois concluded that most black teachers were underpaid and undertrained and school facilities were “wretched and inadequate.”[11] By this time, Jim Crow legislation had been enacted across southern and western states. The team emphasized that the educational focus on industrial training reduced the amount of time students should be spending on basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

My only disappointment with the book is that it ended too quickly. Williams’ ending leads particularly well into the “education of black people” debates that Du Bois and Booker T. Washington had during the early part of the twentieth century. There is also much to be said about Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s collaboration on the Rosenwald Schools of the 1920s through the 1940s, which is a topic of great interest among historic preservationists today. Hopefully, Williams will write a sequel.

[1] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Ibid., 183.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Lauren Feiner, “Historian to Join Africana Studies Department as a Presidential Professor,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, May 14, 2014, accessed January 22, 2017,

[5] Williams, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 199.