Early twentieth century American black education

Schooling for slaves

In the rural South of America, during the era of slavery, slaves who could read and write were highly regarded in the slave community, but seriously mistrusted by slave owners, who feared that literate slaves would persuade others to rebel. As a result, laws were passed that made it illegal to teach a slave to read, write or attend a school. Some church ministers did establish schools for slaves but generally education was not encouraged in many parts of the rural South.

Denied formal schooling, slaves found alternative ways to learn, from parents or family members or occasionally from tutors. These were hired by enlightened plantation owners, who were motivated either by Christian beliefs that the Bible should be accessible to slaves, or because they valued slaves who could perform useful tasks such as record-keeping.

In the North of America, black education was not forbidden and African-Americans had wider opportunities to attend schools. The Quaker movement played an important part in providing education, but even so, black schools struggled to survive because of financial hardship and lack of white support.

Access to learning

Before the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, long and irregular working hours made it difficult for any black person to attend school regularly. Furthermore white teachers often only taught a very restricted range of subjects, deemed ‘suitable’ for slave pupils.

Despite these restrictions, many slaves did manage to learn and during the nineteenth century a number of them published narratives detailing their experiences in bondage.

These slave narratives generated support for the abolition of slavery, especially among a large Northern readership. See The Color Purple: Literary context > Stylistic influences > Slave narratives. After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, free slaves established schools and colleges and continued to do so despite segregation, intimidation and violent opposition in the years to follow.

More on African-American education milestones?

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.