Literacy and Anti-Literacy Laws

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Literacy and Anti-Literacy Laws

During the antebellum period in the United States, anti-literacy laws were a major strategy used by southern plantation owners to dehumanize and control the enslaved black population. Anti-literacy laws were an extension of the infamous slave codes, which governed a plethora of activities, including slaves' interactions with non-slave-owning citizens. Louisiana's slave codes, for example, made it illegal for a "slave to be party in a civil suit or witness in a civil or criminal matter against any white person" (Davis 1845, p. 1). In addition, they prevented the enslaved black population from owning property or traveling alone without the written permission of their masters, and made it legal for any "freeholder" to discipline a slave in the absence of his or her master (Davis 1845, p. 1). Mississippi's slave codes allowed for the sale of any "negro or mulatto in the state who cannot show himself entitled to freedom", p. 2). Alabama's slave codes made it illegal for "free persons of color" to interact with "negro slaves" without the written permission of the master, and it imposed a punishment of fifteen lashes for the first offense and thirty-nine lashes for each subsequent offense (Davis 1845, p.2).

Anti-literacy laws were a natural extension of the slave code system, preventing the enslaved black population from learning how to read in any form (Rush 1773, p. 17). This was important for obvious reasons: Making it illegal for black people to learn to read and write reinforced the notion that Africans were inferior to whites. In the antebellum South, literacy was a sign of intellectual development and, potentially, social mobility—in fact, many white southerners were illiterate, so it was imperative to prevent the blacks from learning to read in order to maintain the myth of white supremacy. Learning to read gave the enslaved access to important information; plantation owners were afraid of the barrage of abolitionist literature flooding the South. News of recent slave insurrections and arguments against slavery as an institution were of particular concern (Carroll 1938, p. 166).

Anti-literacy laws varied from state to state. Virginia slave codes, for instance, required that "any slave or free person of color found at any school for teaching, reading or writing by day or night" could be whipped, at the discretion of a judge, "no more than twenty lashes" (Davis 1845, p. 3). Any white person found teaching "free coloured persons or slaves" to read could be fined between $10 and $100 and serve up to two months in jail. Mississippi state law required a white person to serve up to a year in prison as "penalty for teaching a slave to read" (Davis 1845, p. 2). South Carolina law made it illegal for "any assembly of slaves or freed persons of color to meet in secret or a confined space for mental instruction" (Davis 1845, p. 3).

Despite attempts by plantation owners to prevent black people from learning how to read and write, multiple strategies emerged within the black community to counter their efforts. Slaves who worked as house servants took advantage of their proximity to the plantation owner's family by participating secretly or indirectly in the reading and writing lessons given to the master's children by private tutors. In addition, because house servants often acted as surrogate parents to the master's children, the children sometimes secretly taught them to read and write. In some cases, slave masters allowed blacks to learn to read the Bible as part of a broader process of civilizing a primitive species. This often involved the recitation of slave catechisms, which were constructed by white plantation owners and pastors to teach a version of Christianity that justified slavery, obedience to one's master as a sign of righteousness, and the inherent inferiority of black people as descendants of the infamously cursed Ham. Less frequently, on larger plantations, slave masters and overseers instructed chosen house servants to read and write to help with record keeping. Most often, though, slaves learned in secret, away from the watchful eyes of the plantation owner and overseer. Frequently, house servants then instructed field hands, young adults instructed elders, and parents instructed children.

In the North, where chattel slavery had been abolished in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, free African Americans created institutions to eliminate illiteracy in the black community. One of the most popular strategies was the formation of literary societies such as the Theban Literary Society of Pittsburgh, the African American Female Intelligence Society of Boston, and the New York-based African Clarkson Society. Toward the end of the antebellum period literary societies served as forums for debating, strategizing, and developing propaganda that advocated the abolishment of southern slavery. Frequently, communities and organizations such as the Quakers and the American Anti-Slavery Society lent political and financial support to these efforts. This historical process produced great African American authors and works such as Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), David Walker's radical antislavery document Walker's Appeal (1829), and Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).


Carroll, Joseph Cephas. Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800–1865. Boston: Chapman and Grimes, 1938.

Davis, Edward M. Extracts from the American Slave Code, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1845.

Rush, Benjamin. An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping. Philadelphia: J. Dunlap, 1773.

                                          Kwasi Densu