The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War By C.G. Woodson. 1919
Brought from the African wilds to constitute the laboring class of a pioneering society in the new world, the heathen slaves had to be trained to meet the needs of their environment. It required little argument to convince intelligent masters that slaves who had some conception of modern civilization and understood the language of their owners would be more valuable than rude men with whom one could not communicate. The questions, however, as to exactly what kind of training these Negroes should have, and how far it should go, were to the white race then as much a matter of perplexity as they are now. Yet, believing that slaves could not be enlightened without developing in them a longing for liberty, not a few masters maintained that the more brutish the bondmen the more pliant they become for purposes of exploitation. It was this class of slaveholders that finally won the majority of southerners to their way of thinking and determined that Negroes should not be educated.
The history of the education of the ante-bellum Negroes, therefore, falls into two periods. The first extends from the time of the introduction of slavery to the climax of the insurrectionary movement about 1835, when the majority of the people in this country answered in the affirmative the question whether or not it was prudent to educate their slaves. Then followed the second period, when the industrial revolution changed slavery from a patriarchal to an economic institution, and when intelligent Negroes, encouraged by abolitionists, made so many attempts to organize servile insurrections
that the pendulum began to swing the other way. By this time most southern white people reached the conclusion that it was impossible to cultivate the minds of Negroes without arousing overmuch self-assertion.
The early advocates of the education of Negroes were of three classes: first, masters who desired to increase the economic efficiency of their labor supply; second, sympathetic persons who wished to help the oppressed; and third, zealous missionaries who, believing that the message of divine love came equally to all, taught slaves the English language that they might learn the principles of the Christian religion. Through the kindness of the first class, slaves had their best chance for mental improvement. Each slaveholder dealt with the situation to suit himself, regardless of public opinion. Later, when measures were passed to prohibit the education of slaves, some masters, always a law unto themselves, continued to teach their Negroes in defiance of the hostile legislation. Sympathetic persons were not able to accomplish much because they were usually reformers, who not only did not own slaves, but dwelt in practically free settlements far from the plantations on which the bondmen lived.
The Spanish and French missionaries, the first to face this problem, set an example which influenced the education of the Negroes throughout America. Some of these early heralds of Catholicism manifested more interest in the Indians than in the Negroes, and advocated the enslavement of the Africans rather than that of the Red Men. But being anxious to see the Negroes enlightened and brought into the Church, they courageously directed their attention to the teaching of their slaves, provided for the instruction of the numerous mixed-breed offspring, and granted freedmen the educational privileges of the highest classes. Put to shame by this noble example of the Catholics, the English colonists had to find a way to overcome the objections of those who, granting that the enlightenment of the slaves might not lead to servile insurrection, nevertheless feared that their conversion might work manumission. To meet this exigency the colonists secured, through legislation by their assemblies and formal declarations of the Bishop of London, the abrogation of the law that a Christian could not be held as a slave. Then allowed access to the bondmen, the missionaries of the Church of England, sent out by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen in Foreign Parts, undertook to educate the slaves for the purpose of extensive proselyting.
Contemporaneous with these early workers of the Established Church of England were the liberal Puritans, who directed their attention to the conversion of the slaves long before this sect advocated abolition. Many of this connection justified slavery as established by the precedent of the Hebrews, but they felt that persons held to service should be instructed as were the servants of the household of Abraham. The progress of the cause was impeded, however, by the bigoted class of Puritans, who did not think well of the policy of incorporating undesirable persons into the Church so closely connected then with the state. The first settlers of the American colonies to offer Negroes the same educational and religious privileges they provided for persons of their own race, were the Quakers. Believing in the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, they taught the colored people to read their own "instruction in the book of the law that they might be wise unto salvation."
Encouraging as was the aspect of things after these early efforts, the contemporary complaints about the neglect to instruct the slaves show that the cause lacked something to make the movement general. Then came the days when the struggle for the rights of man was arousing the civilized world. After 1760 the nascent social doctrine found response among the American colonists. They looked with opened eyes at the Negroes. A new day then dawned for the dark-skinned race. Men like Patrick Henry and James Otis, who demanded liberty for themselves, could not but concede that slaves were entitled at least to freedom of body. The frequent acts of manumission and emancipation which followed upon this change in attitude toward persons of color, turned loose upon society a large number of men whose chief needs were education and training in the duties of citizenship. To enlighten these freedmen schools, missions, and churches were established by benevolent and religious workers. These colaborers included at this time the Baptists and Methodists who, thanks to the spirit of toleration incident to the Revolution, were allowed access to Negroes bond and free.
With all of these new opportunities Negroes exhibited a rapid mental development. Intelligent colored men proved to be useful and trustworthy servants; they became much better laborers and artisans, and many of them showed administrative ability adequate to the management of business establishments and large plantations. Moreover, better rudimentary education served many ambitious persons of color as a stepping-stone to higher attainments. Negroes learned to appreciate and write poetry and contributed something to mathematics, science, and philosophy. Furthermore, having disproved the theories of their mental inferiority, some of the race, in conformity with the suggestion of Cotton Mather, were employed to teach white children.
Observing these evidences of a general uplift of the Negroes, certain educators advocated the establishment of special colored schools. The founding of these institutions, however, must not be understood as a movement to separate the children of the races on account of caste prejudice. The dual system resulted from an effort to meet the needs peculiar to a people just emerging from bondage. It was easily seen that their education should no longer be dominated by religion. Keeping the past of the Negroes in mind, their friends tried to unite the benefits of practical and cultural education. The teachers of colored schools offered courses in the industries along with advanced work in literature, mathematics, and science. Girls who specialized in sewing took lessons in French.
So startling were the rapid strides made by the colored people in their mental development after the revolutionary era that certain southerners who had not seriously objected to the enlightenment of the Negroes began to favor the half reactionary policy of educating them only on the condition that they should be colonized. The colonization movement, however, was supported also by some white men who, seeing the educational progress of the colored people during the period of better beginnings, felt that they should be given an opportunity to be transplanted to a free country where they might develop without restriction.
Timorous southerners, however, soon had other reasons for their uncharitable attitude. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century two effective forces were rapidly increasing the number of reactionaries who by public opinion gradually prohibited the education of the colored people in all places except certain urban communities where progressive Negroes had been sufficiently enlightened to provide their own school facilities. The first of these forces was the worldwide industrial movement. It so revolutionized spinning and weaving that the resulting increased demand for cotton fiber gave rise
to the plantation system of the South, which required a larger number of slaves. Becoming too numerous to be considered as included in the body politic as conceived by Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone, the slaves were generally doomed to live without any enlightenment whatever. Thereafter rich planters not only thought it unwise toeducate men thus destined to live on a plane with beasts, but
considered it more profitable to work a slave to death during seven years and buy another in his stead than to teach and humanize him with a view to increasing his efficiency.
The other force conducive to reaction was the circulation through intelligent Negroes of antislavery accounts of the wrongs to colored people and the well portrayed exploits of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Furthermore, refugees from Haiti settled in Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, and New Orleans, where they gave Negroes a first-hand story of how black men of the West Indies had righted their wrongs. At
the same time certain abolitionists and not a few slaveholders were praising, in the presence of slaves, the bloody methods of the French Revolution. When this enlightenment became productive of such disorders that slaveholders lived in eternal dread of servile insurrection, Southern States adopted the thoroughly reactionary policy of making the education of Negroes impossible.
The prohibitive legislation extended over a period of more than a century, beginning with the act of South Carolina in 1740. But with the exception of the action of this State and that of Georgia the important measures which actually proscribed the teaching of Negroes were enacted during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The States attacked the problem in various ways. Colored people beyond a certain number were not allowed to assemble for social or religious purposes, unless in the presence of certain "discreet" white men; slaves were deprived of the helpful contact of free persons of color by driving them out of some Southern States; masters who had employed their favorite blacks in positions which required a knowledge of bookkeeping, printing, and the like, were commanded by law to discontinue that custom; and private and public teachers were prohibited from assisting Negroes to acquire knowledge in any manner whatever.
The majority of the people of the South had by this time come to the conclusion that, as intellectual elevation unfits men for servitude and renders it impossible to retain them in this condition, it should be interdicted. In other words, the more you cultivate the minds of slaves, the more unserviceable you make them; you give them a higher relish for those privileges which they cannot attain and turn what you intend for a blessing into a curse. If they are to remain in slavery they should be kept in the lowest state of ignorance and degradation, and the nearer you bring them to the condition of brutes the better
chance they have to retain their apathy. It had thus been brought to pass that the measures enacted to prevent the education of Negroes had not only forbidden association with their fellows for mutual help and closed up most colored schools in the South, but had in several States made it a crime for a Negro to teach his own children.
The contrast of conditions at the close of this period with those of former days is striking. Most slaves who were once counted as valuable, on account of their ability to read and write the English language, were thereafter considered unfit for service in the South and branded as objects of suspicion. Moreover, when within a generation or so the Negroes began to retrograde because they had been deprived of every elevating influence, the white people of the South resorted to their old habit of answering their critics with the bold assertion that the effort to enlighten the blacks would prove futile on account of their mental inferiority. The apathy which these bondmen, inured to hardships, consequently developed was referred to as adequate evidence that they were content with their lot, and that any effort to teach them to know their real condition would be productive of mischief both to the slaves and their masters.
The reactionary movement, however, was not confined to the South. The increased migration of fugitives and free Negroes to the asylum of Northern States, caused certain communities of that section to feel that they were about to be overrun by undesirable persons who could not be easily assimilated. The subsequent anti-abolition riots in the North made it difficult for friends of the Negroes to raise funds to educate them. Free persons of color were not allowed to open schools in some places, teachers of Negroes were driven from their stations, and colored schoolhouses were burned.
Ashamed to play the role of a Christian clergy guarding silence on the indispensable duty of saving the souls of the colored people, certain of the most influential southern ministers hit upon the scheme of teaching illiterate Negroes the principles of Christianity by memory training or the teaching of religion without letters. This the clergy were wont to call religious instruction. The word instruction, however, as used in various documents, is rather confusing. Before the reactionary period all instruction of the colored people included the teaching of the rudiments of education as a means to convey Christian thought. But with the exception of a few Christians the southerners thereafter used the word instruction to signify the mere memorizing of principles from the most simplified books. The sections of the South
in which the word instruction was not used in this restricted sense were mainly the settlements of Quakers and Catholics who, in defiance of the law, persisted in teaching Negroes to read and write. Yet it was not uncommon to find others who, after having unsuccessfully used their influence against the enactment of these reactionary laws, boldly defied them by instructing the Negroes of their communities. Often opponents to this custom winked at it as an indulgence to the clerical profession. Many Scotch-Irish of the Appalachian Mountains and liberal Methodists and Baptists of the Western slave States did not materially change their attitude toward the enlightenment of the colored people during the reactionary period. The Negroes among these people continued to study books and hear religious instruction conveyed to maturing minds.
Yet little as seemed this enlightenment by means of verbal instruction, some slaveholders became sufficiently inhuman to object to it on the grounds that the teaching of religion would lead to the teaching of letters. In fact, by 1835 certain parts of the South reached the third stage in the development of the education of the Negroes. At first they were taught the common branches to enable them to understand the principles of Christianity; next the colored people as an enlightened class became such a menace to southern institutions that it was deemed unwise to allow them any instruction beyond that of memory training; and finally, when it was discovered that many ambitious blacks were still learning to stir up their fellows, it was decreed that they should not receive any instruction at all. Reduced thus to the plane of beasts, where they remained for generations, Negroes developed bad traits which since their emancipation have been removed only with great difficulty.
Dark as the future of the Negro students seemed, all hope was not yet gone. Certain white men in every southern community made it possible for many of them to learn in spite of opposition. Slaveholders were not long in discovering that a thorough execution of the law was impossible when Negroes were following practically all the higher pursuits of labor in the South. Masters who had children known to be teaching slaves protected their benevolent sons and daughters from the rigors of the law. Preachers, on finding out that the effort at verbal education could not convey Christian truths to an undeveloped mind, overcame the opposition in their localities and taught the colored people as before. Negroes themselves, regarding learning as forbidden fruit, stole away to secret places at night to study under the
direction of friends. Some learned by intuition without having had the guidance of an instructor. The fact is that these drastic laws were not passed to restrain "discreet" southerners from doing whatever they desired for the betterment of their Negroes. The aim was to cut off their communication with northern teachers and abolitionists, whose activity had caused the South to believe that if such precaution were not taken these agents would teach their slaves principles subversive of southern institutions. Thereafter the documents which mention the teaching of Negroes to read and write seldom even state that the southern white teacher was so much as censured for his benevolence. In the rare cases of arrest of such instructors they were usually acquitted after receiving a reprimand.
With this winking at the teaching of Negroes in defiance of the law a better day for their education brightened certain parts of the South about the middle of the nineteenth century. Believing that an enlightened laboring class might stop the decline of that section, some slaveholders changed their attitude toward the elevation of the colored people. Certain others came to think that the policy of keeping Negroes in ignorance to prevent servile insurrections was unwise. It was observed that the most loyal and subordinate slaves were those who could read the Bible and learn the truth for themselves. Private teachers of colored persons, therefore, were often left undisturbed, little effort was made to break up the Negroes' secret schools in different parts, and many influential white men took it upon themselves to instruct the blacks who were anxious to learn.
Other Negroes who had no such opportunities were then finding a way of escape through the philanthropy of those abolitionists who colonized some freedmen and fugitives in the Northwest Territory and promoted the migration of others to the East. These Negroes were often fortunate. Many of them settled where they could take up land and had access to schools and churches conducted by the best white people of the country. This migration, however, made matters worse for the Negroes who were left in the South. As only the most enlightened blacks left the slave States, the bondmen and the indigent free persons of color were thereby deprived of helpful contact. The preponderance of intelligent Negroes, therefore, was by 1840 on the side of the North. Thereafter the actual education of the colored people was largely confined to eastern cities and northern communities of transplanted freedmen. The pioneers of these groups organized churches and established and maintained a number of successful elementary schools.
In addition to providing for rudimentary instruction, the free Negroes of the North helped their friends to make possible what we now call higher education. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century the advanced training of the colored people was almost prohibited by the refusals of academies and colleges to admit persons of African blood. In consequence of these conditions, the long-put-forth efforts to found Negro colleges began to be crowned with success before the Civil War. Institutions of the North admitted Negroes later for various reasons. Some colleges endeavored to prepare them for service in Liberia, while others, proclaiming their conversion to the doctrine of democratic education, opened their doors to all.
The advocates of higher education, however, met with no little opposition. The concentration in northern communities of the crude fugitives driven from the South necessitated a readjustment of things.
The training of Negroes in any manner whatever was then very unpopular in many parts of the North. When prejudice, however, lost some of its sting, the friends of the colored people did more than ever for their education. But in view of the changed conditions most of these philanthropists concluded that the Negroes were very much in need of practical education. Educators first attempted to provide such training by offering classical and vocational courses in what they called the "manual labor schools." When these failed to meet the emergency they advocated actual vocational training. To make this new
system extensive the Negroes freely coöperated with their benefactors, sharing no small part of the real burden. They were at the same time paying taxes to support public schools which they could not attend.
This very condition was what enabled the abolitionists to see that they had erred in advocating the establishment of separate schools for Negroes. At first the segregation of pupils of African blood was, as stated above, intended as a special provision to bring the colored youth into contact with sympathetic teachers, who knew the needs of their students. When the public schools, however, developed at the expense of the state into a desirable system better equipped than private institutions, the antislavery organizations in many Northern States began to demand that the Negroes be admitted to the public schools. After extensive discussion certain States of New England finally decided the question in the affirmative, experiencing no great inconvenience from the change. In most other States of the North, however, separate schools for Negroes did not cease to exist until after the Civil War. It was the liberated Negroes themselves who, during the Reconstruction, gave the Southern States their first effective system of free public schools. (source: The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, "Introduction," )