Child Rearing and Education

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Child Rearing and Education

Slaves of the antebellum South rarely obtained any sort of formal education. This was in part the result of strict antislavery laws that had been enacted in most Southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—that made it illegal for masters and mistresses to teach their bondmen even the rudiments of reading and writing. As a result, by 1860, it is estimated that only approximately 5 percent of slaves were literate. Slaveholders and state legislators alike held fast to the belief that any slave who could read and write posed a great threat to the survival of the institution of slavery. For example, if a slave could read he might interpret the Bible in ways that could bring him to the conclusion that slavery was both immoral and un-Christian. In addition, a literate slave could read newspaper accounts that discussed the growing abolitionist activity in the North. And, at the most extreme level, the empowered literate slave, reacting to what he or she had read, could be rendered capable of instigating slave insurrections. There were, however, despite the legal constraints and general fears, a very few notable slaveholders who did teach favored slaves how to read and write.

Despite the legal restrictions, many slaveholders, especially mistresses, chose to religiously educate their bondmen. Plantation mistresses typically emphasized aspects of the Bible that encouraged slave subservience. They were particularly inclined to introduce to their slaves the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, and various catechisms prepared specifically for slaves. Many bondmen fully recognized the overhanded purpose of their owners' efforts to interject Christianity into their lives, characterizing such behavior as manipulative and self-serving. Slaves often noted what they construed to be a contradiction between God's Word and mistress's cruelty and inhumanity. Former bondman William Wells Brown declared that "slaveholders hide themselves behind the Church," adding that "a more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders of the South." The Reverend William H. Robinson, another former slave, substantiated Brown's observation by mocking his white family's daily prayer which included the line, "grant us all a large increase of slaves …" Furthermore, he belittled his mistress's sermon to her slaves in which she included the line, "God's wisdom is displayed in the system of slavery." In many cases, white-provided religious education, instead of improving them, provided them with evidence that slavery was an immoral and unconscionable institution.

Slaveholders further "improved" slaves by providing them practical educations. Masters, mistresses, or overseers relayed knowledge related to agriculture, carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, cooking, sewing, child-care, first aid, and other plantation-related activities. However, these activities were self-serving for the white population that was exquisitely aware of the relationship between slave efficiency and profit.

Although slaves could not depend upon the white community to provide them with the types of educations that they may have desired, they did attain "educations" (education being defined differently than it is in the twenty-first century) via other means, specifically their families, their peer groups, and religious leaders within their community. Although many persons within the slave community contributed to the education of any given member, it was the slave's family—both immediate and extended—that was the seminal provider of instruction in his youth. As a result of parental influence and the child-rearing practices of their elders, enslaved children learned slave resistance while, at the same time, maintaining their integrity. Bondmen—through their complex kinship networks—effectively transmitted displeasure about slavery and the lifestyle it perpetuated from one generation to another; this sometimes resulted in successful slave resistance to white cultural domination.

In order to survive physically and psychologically, even on the most basic of levels, a slave needed to internalize many important concepts. These included: (1) solidarity and communality within the slave community; (2) distrust and/or suspicion of their owners; (3) their own feeling of black superiority; (4) the relative autonomy of their owners and the government; and (5) the significance and importance of their own black/African religions.

In elaboration, slaves recognized the unending value of solidarity and communality. First, slaves came to view themselves as a member of a social group, whose components shared a common lifestyle, common interests and problems, and a common need to stand as one. At very young ages, bondmen understood that their fellow enslaved members were mutually dependent on one another. As a consequence, they learned never to betray their fellow slaves, nor to steal from them, nor to fight with them. In addition, they were expected to provide aid to fugitive slaves, to take pride in the accomplishments of community members, and to substitute their services for their injured or sick counterparts. Susan Davis Rhodes, who had been a slave in North Carolina, recalled: "People in my day didn't know book learning but dey studied how to protect each other, and save 'em from such misery as they could."

Second, the slave community also instilled within the minds of young slaves the reality that the interests of whites were inimical to those who were relegated to the slave quarters. Thus, from a very early age, most blacks were suspicious of whites. Blacks viewed whites, in many instances, as liars and hypocrites, especially as they related to, and interacted with, the African American community. Although there were a few kind and well-intentioned slaveholders, slave youth, except in very special circumstances, were told to never fully trust their masters, mistresses, and overseers. Despite such suspicion and distrust, both the slave of his master and the master of his slave, plantation dynamics were far too complex to conclude that many bondmen were not victimized by conflicted feelings. Former slave Austin Steward recalled that when his mistress died "the slaves were all deeply affected by the scene; some doubtless truly lamented the death of their mistress; others rejoiced that she was no more, and all were more or less frightened [about being sold off the plantation]. One of them I remember went to the pump and wet his face, so as to appear to weep with the rest."

Slave youth were also taught that the members of their community should view themselves superior to whites both morally (because they opposed enslaving others) but behaviorally as well. In particular, slave children, by virtue of discussion which they overheard and by behaviors which they observed themselves, were easily brought to the point that they viewed their white owners as lazy, incompetent, and unable to physically engage themselves in farming, cooking, cleaning, carpentry, laundry, or any other type of physical task. Slave children were made to understand that many masters passed their lives traveling, engaging in phony business, gambling, and fretting about money and that mistresses, as a group, were weak, spoiled, histrionic, naïve, delicate creatures unwilling or unable to participate in daily household chores. In extension, the slave community schooled its younger members in those ways by which they could outwit their white owners. For example, young bondmen were taught by their elders how to forge passes, how to rub garlic or red onion on their feet in order to keep dogs off their trail, and how to escape from having been locked in their slave cabins by climbing up the chimney. And finally, slave youth were taught that they could effectively deceive the white community via a carefully crafted secret language, songs, and gestures imparted to them by their family and others.

Concurrently, as young slaves learned of effective ways by which they could outwit their masters, their black elders made them acutely aware of the relative autonomy of their owners. Most significantly for the bondman, slaveholders possessed absolute and final authority over their slaves and at any time could dismantle slave families by selling off members and could inflict punishment for any perceived offense. Consequently, despite slaves' concerted efforts to resist the proverbial chains of slavery, they always lived in fear. Despite having been "educated" in the ways of resistance, ultimately elders in the slave community at large felt forced to warn their youth that there were consequences attached to challenging white power. Younger slaves were further reminded that the local and state governments as well as the judicial system were positioned to uphold the hegemony of the white planter class.

And, finally, many African American slaves labored to instill into the minds of their youth an appreciation for the black/African spirit world. Elderly bondmen, especially, felt it was their responsibility to educate the younger generations about important aspects of their native African animistic religions and the significance of witches, ghosts, Voodoo, hoodoo, haints, curses, conjuring, and spirits, which were all components of their belief systems. Slaves melded many of those and other aspects of their African religions with chosen aspects of Christianity to form a syncretic Afro-Christianity. This Afro-Christianity that was widely taught provided members of the slave community an emotional escape from their dreary day-to-day lives and, more importantly, an identity that transcended anything created by the white planter class.

In summation, the education and child-rearing of a slave child was no easy feat, either for those who provided it or for those who received it. There were many lessons and skills to be learned for any slave child to function practically and emotionally as a member of his own black community and as a functionary in the white plantation world. Every slave was indebted to members of his nuclear family, his extended family, and his fellow community members to provide him practical skills and a psychological compass to carry him through the trials of a life in bondage.


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Robinson, Reverend William H. From Log Cabin to the Pulpit, or, Fifteen Years in Slavery, 3rd ed. Eau Claire, WI: 1913.

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

                                Katherine E. Rohrer