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Literacy for Slaves: A Long, Hard Road

Those who lived in slavery in the United States were governed by a public policy that forbade them to learn to read and write. Yet many of those who were enslaved placed such a high value on literacy that they were willing to go to great lengths in order to learn to read and write, even jeopardizing their own safety.

Janet Duitsman Cornelius tells the story of Lucius Holsey, a slave committed to learning to read. Holsey was able to obtain five books: two Webster’s “blue back” spellers, a dictionary, Paradise Lost and the Bible. Holsey wrote:

Day by day, I took a leaf from one of the spelling books, and so folded it that one or two of the lessons were on the outside as if printed on a card. This I put in the pocket of my vest or coat, and when I was sitting in the carriage, walking the streets, or working in the yard or using the hoe or spade, or in the dining room I would take out my spelling leaf, catch a word and commit it to memory ... Besides, I could catch words from the white people and retain them in memory until I could get to my dictionary. Then I would spell and define the words until they became perfectly impressed upon my memory.

Richard Parker, a slave in Virginia, wanted to read so badly that he picked up old nails and sold them until he had enough money to buy a primer. Then he needed a teacher, so he collected more nails until he had enough to exchange them for a number of marbles. When he went to the well to water the horses, he would give a white boy a marble to tell him a letter. In this way he learned the alphabet and continued until he could read words of two syllables. He hid his book from view in his hat, carrying it there until he wore the hair from the top of his head.

Pit schools were another risky way for slaves to learn to read. Slaves would slip out at night and go into the deep woods, where they would dig out pits. There slaves who could already read would serve as teachers.

Frederick Douglass told the story of his burning desire to learn to read. At first he learned from his master’s wife. When her husband found out what she was doing, however, he forbade his wife to teach Douglass anything more. Douglass’s master contended that learning would make him unmanageable and therefore worthless as a slave. Douglass wrote: “That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought, and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”

Douglass soon found a way around his master’s obstruction. When he ran errands, he would take bread with him. He would find poor white children who would teach him in exchange for the bread. After he learned to write the letters “L,” “S,” “F” and “A” from markings out on pieces of timber in the shipyard, he would challenge white boys he met by saying he could write as well as they could. Douglass would then write the four letters he knew and challenge the other boy to go further. When they did, Douglass was able to add more letters to own knowledge.

Douglass said that his copybook was the board fence, brick wall and pavement, and his pen was a lump of chalk. Eventually Douglass was able to obtain a Webster’s spelling book and a copybook that belonged to his master’s son. These tools enabled him to become literate. Frederick Douglass transformed his literacy into eloquence as an abolitionist.

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