Education of African Americans

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Education of African Americans

Despite the lack of quality records regarding the status of African American education in the early Republic, some generalizations can be made. The educational opportunities were greater for free blacks than for slaves, greater for northerners than for southerners, and greater for city dwellers than for rural people. Overall, however, educational opportunities for African Americans were either nonexistent or sub-standard. This assessment stems primarily from the significant obstacles placed in the path of African Americans, but it does not negate the tireless efforts of many African Americans, and some white reformers, to make significant strides in education.

In the absence of public education, religious institutions took the lead in African American education, either by establishing schools or by providing general education in Sabbath schools, which often supplied the only educational opportunity for African Americans. For instance, in Philadelphia the Society of Friends developed the first black schools in 1770, and in 1784 Anthony Benezet's will set aside money to endow an African American school. Other denominations, particularly Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, also supported black education, especially the literacy required to read the Bible. Additionally, as black and white churches separated, the African Methodist Episcopal Church often took the lead in education. Schools, second only to churches, provided the bulwark for both the African American community and an African American identity during this period.

Schools, whether religious, private, or public, were concentrated primarily in urban areas, and primarily in the North, though some southern cities, such as Charleston, Richmond, and New Orleans, also had schools for free African Americans. Regardless of the location, these schools suffered from a dearth of funding. African Americans were excluded from most public facilities, and when separate facilities were provided, in most cases they were unequal in terms of both their physical structure and their curriculum. Nevertheless, contemporary observers gave great credit to the efforts of the African American community; given its lack of resources, even small gains represented significant sacrifices. African Americans clearly recognized the role that education could play in their elevation in society. Nevertheless, schools lacked not only funds but students. Although African Americans valued education, the need for children to work, the unwillingness of employers to allow children to attend school, and society's unwillingness to allow educated African Americans to move up in the world combined to keep enrollment low. For example, in 1813, out of Philadelphia's African American population of approximately 11,000, only 414 were enrolled in schools, and in New York in the 1820s, only 600 to 800 out of more than 10,000 African Americans were enrolled.

Although the totals for African American education may not have been impressive during this period, individual achievements did stand out. Schools represented a first step for the emerging African American leadership during this period. In the 1820s the United States saw its first African American college graduates: Alexander Lucius Twilight (Middlebury), Edward Jones (Amherst), and John Russwurm (Bowdoin). In North Carolina John Chavis, a well-educated Presbyterian minister, operated a prestigious day school for whites and an evening school for children of his own race. Additionally, people who would later become prominent in the abolitionist movement, including Henry Highland Garnet and Samuel Ringgold Ward, received their formative schooling during the years of the early Republic.

In the early nineteenth century, southern whites often divided in their attitude toward African American education. Religious leaders emphasized the need for African Americans to be able to read the Bible, whereas others denied the need for African American education. Opponents expressed two contradictory claims: that blacks could not be educated, and that educated blacks (whether slave or free) represented a threat to society. In the wake of the publication of David Walker's Appeal in 1829, an African American tract calling for slaves to violently resist slavery, and Nat Turner's 1831 revolt, the second claim triumphed, and most southern states passed laws that either outlawed the education of slaves or banned group meetings, which prevented any organized slave education. Prior to 1830, however, most southern states did not have such laws, and thus slaves may have had better access to education than in subsequent years.

The percentage of slaves who were literate will never be known, but most estimates place this number at below 5 percent. They received their education from their owners, missionaries, or fellow slaves, or through subterfuge—or through a combination of methods. For example, in the 1820s in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass learned through a combination of the aid of his female owner and by using bread to bribe white neighborhood children to teach him. Based on the records of slave literacy, slave owners may have had good reason to be leery of literate slaves, as not only Douglass, but also the leaders of revolts, including Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner, learned to read and write during this period.

The overall record of the education of African Americans during this period would receive a low grade, but two key themes must be remembered. First, in some ways, African American opportunities in this period exceeded those of the subsequent thirty years. Some northern public schools were integrated, and in most southern states it was still legal for African Americans to congregate and to teach slaves to read and write. Second, the record must not be judged against an ideal but rather against the reality of African Americans' low status in both the South and the North. The overwhelming majority of African Americans were either slaves themselves or had been slaves until the North passed emancipation laws, and thus they had neither the resources nor the time to devote to schooling that other groups had. Measured against their privation, the achievements of African Americans in education are commendable and hard-won.

See alsoSlavery: Slave Insurrections .


Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. "When I Can Read My Title Clear": Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Woodson, Carter G. The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. New York and London: Putnam, 1915.

John M. Sacher

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Education of African Americans

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Education of African Americans