Literacy and Religious Instruction
By 1680 their efforts might have produced an unanticipated consequence in that some slaves, in addition to learning how to read, had also taught themselves how to write. That may explain why that year, the House of Burgesses declared it 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."
By "Christianizing," Godwyn meant teaching slaves to read. As early as the 1660s, 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, slaves could also realize their primary purpose in life, "namely to glorifie and serve God."
Letter to Bishop Edmund Gibson
At the time Virginia had fifty-four parishes; responses from twenty-eight have survived. They suggest that only a modest number of slaves 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 that slaves 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 slaves 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 slaves. 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."
In addition to church records, runaway slave advertisements provide evidence that some slaves learned to read and write. Between 1736 and 1776, approximately 1,000 fugitive-slave notices appeared in the Virginia Gazette, published 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 slaves 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. By the 1750s that number grew. Around the same time the colony's slave population nearly doubled, 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 estate of Lewis Burwell in July 1774. A member of the House of Burgesses, Burwell placed an advertisement 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 freeman 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 slaves 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 (SPG) in 1701. In keeping with the prophet Isaiah's injunction to "seek ye out the book of the Lord, and read," the Associates established schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia that provided enslaved people 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.
Bee, then owned by John Blair, a member of the governor's Council, 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, they learned "the true Spelling of Words" and how to pronounce "& read distinctly." The Associates believed that slaveholders had a Christian obligation to provide reading instruction, especially to those who had been born in the colony.
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 used slaves as schoolmasters. Adam Dickie, the minister of Drysdale Parish in King and Queen County, taught several slaves, some of whom he trusted to teach others. In 1732, the parson boasted that he had fourteen slaves in his congregation who "could answer for themselves and repeat the Catechism very distinctly." Two years later, he circulated SPG books to those slaves "he thought most diligent and desirous to read." Jonathan Boucher, a minister in Hanover Parish, King George County, also employed slaves as 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," he wrote in a letter to the Associates, "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 Slave Literacy
While many white Virginians believed that literacy was necessary for the religious conversion of slaves, they also feared the consequences of such an education. For one, a slave'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 and, therefore, in need of guidance by white men. For another, the education of slaves risked exposing them to ideas of human equality that circulated during the American Revolution. Virginia slaveholders worried that their slaves, armed with such ideas, might rebel.
Literacy allowed enslaved men and women a limited ability to move about and provided them some access to written ideas. In addition, skilled slaves were often hired out, 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 may have represented a threat to many white Virginians, and in the aftermath of the conspiracy that bore his name, the General Assembly passed new restrictions that attempted to make such an event 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 prohibited all slaves from gathering together at night—at churches, meetinghouses, or anywhere else—under any pretext. Although the law did not explicitly connect such gatherings with slaves 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, meanwhile, was not expressly prohibited. In 1805, the General Assembly updated its earlier law prohibiting the gathering of slaves to clarify that it was not intended to prevent masters from taking their slaves to church. In 1819, the assembly further clarified the law. In addition to being prohibited from gathering at meetinghouses, slaves were now banned from "any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night." It continued to be legal for slaveholders to instruct their slaves outside of schools, churches, and meetinghouses, and some masters believed that literacy increased a slave's value. Most slaveholders, however, resisted the impulse to educate. Still, many of their slaves worked hard and often took great risks to educate themselves.
In his memoir Twenty-Eight Years a Slave (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 used their ability to read and write for many ends. Born a slave 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 Virginia slaves, he used literacy to communicate with his extended family. When not recounting parties and gossip inside and outside church, Washington wrote Annie Gordon, a free black girl several years his junior love letters and flirtatious notes. A Virginia slave woman named Maria Perkins wrote her husband Richard, lamenting the sale of their children.
Sundays proved to be perhaps the most advantageous days for learning. They afforded enslaved Virginians such as Washington, Perkins, Sumler, and others some time off for religious observance and a chance to steal away to read and write. Most masters preached from the New Testament, but slave songs document a preference for the Old Testament. Instead of messages of subservience and obedience, slaves 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 slave 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."
Revising the 1819 law prohibiting slave education, the assembly declared "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 negroes or mulattoes to read or write were fined fifty dollars, or twice that sum if they were caught instructing slaves. To discourage such meetings, they continued to threaten corporal punishment. But these efforts were ultimately in vain; slaves continued to learn to read and write.
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 slaves 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 slaves 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."
July 21, 1656 - The General Assembly releases "A Report of a Comittee from an Assembly Concerning the freedome of Elizabeth Key," ruling that the slave Elizabeth Key should be freed.
December 1662 - In a newly passed law designed to clarify conditions by which people are enslaved or free, the General Assembly declares that "all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother."
1680 - The pamphlet Negro's & Indians Advocate by Morgan Godwyn is published in England.
June 8, 1680 - The General Assembly passes "An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections," which prohibits slaves from arming themselves "with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon." In order to prevent public gatherings, the law prohibits slaves from leaving their masters' property without a certificate.
March 8, 1699 - The Reverend Thomas Bray and four laymen found the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, a group that sends Anglican missionaries from Britain to its colonies.
June 16, 1701 - King William III charters the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a group founded by the Reverend Thomas Bray.
August 4–September 8, 1723 - An anonymous group of slaves pens a letter to Edmund Gibson, bishop of London.
January 15, 1724 - The Associates of Dr. Bray, a group dedicated to educating the children of enslaved men and women in America, is founded.
September 29, 1760 - The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school for the education of free and enslaved black children in Williamsburg.
December 1764 - Thirty-three enslaved students are enrolled at the Bray school in Williamsburg.
April 1765 - The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school in Fredericksburg for the education of slaves.
Winter 1769–1770 - Fielding Lewis closes the Bray school in Fredericksburg.
September 8, 1774 - Lewis Burwell advertises for the return of his slave Isaac Bee in the Virginia Gazette.
November 17, 1774 - Robert Carter Nicholas reports that the Williamsburg Bray School's teacher has died and the school closed.
August 30, 1800 - A planned slave revolt led by a blacksmith named Gabriel (owned by Thomas Prosser, of Henrico County) is thwarted when a huge storm delays the meeting of the conspirators and a few nervous slaves reveal the plot to their masters.
January 25, 1803 - The General Assembly passes "An Act more effectually to restrain the practice of negroes going at large."
January 24, 1804 - The General Assembly passes "An Act further declaring what shall be deemed unlawful meetings of slaves."
January 4, 1805 - The General Assembly revises a law from the year before regarding "unlawful meetings of slaves."
March 2, 1819 - The General Assembly passes an act that gathers and revises its laws governing slavery.
April 7, 1831 - The General Assembly passes "An act to amend the act concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes."
August 21–22, 1831 - Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet, leads the deadliest slave revolt in Virginia's history, which in just twelve hours leaves fifty-five white people dead in Southampton County.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Bly, A. T. Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia. (2019, June 24). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slave_Literacy_and_Education_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Bly, Antonio T. "Slave Literacy and Education in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 24 Jun. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 3, 2017 | Last modified: June 24, 2019