Education during Reconstruction, and how formerly enslaved black Americans learned to read.

How Black Americans Learned to Read During Reconstruction, When All the Books Were Racist

How Black Americans Learned to Read During Reconstruction, When All the Books Were Racist

A Slate Academy
Dec. 8 2017 7:20 AM

The Oppressor’s Bookshelf

As formerly enslaved Americans battled to become literate, the only books available to them were written by white supremacists and condescending abolitionists.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Henry Louis Stephens/Library of Congress.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Henry Louis Stephens/Library of Congress.

This article supplements Reconstruction, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Reconstruction

Adapted from Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.

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Books were of course essential to teaching, but they were also scarce commodities within freed communities. In response to the Freedmen’s Bureau question, “What books do you use?” one Georgia teacher replied, “Any I can get.”1

His response underscored the overwhelming poverty of freedpeople and the challenge involved in establishing effective schools. In many freedpeople classrooms, student progress was hindered by a lack of books and other classroom necessities. Reverend Joseph Warren, the Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent of Education for Mississippi, echoed teachers’ concerns in an 1866 report: “Not more than two of the school-houses have been properly fitted up with writing-desks, even of the most primitive kind. Some others have very little accommodation for writing; most of them none at all. This is owing to the poverty of the people, and to the large demands upon the funds of the benevolent societies.” Warren concluded, “unless better apparatus can be provided in our schools, justice cannot be done to the pupils.”2

Some teachers were fortunate enough to receive donations of one or two types of books from northern organizations, but the tool that African Americans used most frequently to decode written English was Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book, popularly called “the blue-back speller.” This book, which insisted on an American pronunciation distinct from the English, was Webster’s contribution to the American Revolution. Having “thrown off the shackles” of English rule, Americans, Webster believed, should also renounce the language. Instead of “honour,” Americans would spell “honor”; instead of “publick,” “public.” By 1818, Webster’s book had sold 5 million copies.3 It was this little book that Frederick Douglass and countless other enslaved people used in their first steps toward literacy.4 And when slavery ended, adults and children, many of whom could not attend school, got hold of the blue-back speller and slowly taught themselves to read. The speller accrued emotional significance as the guide that helped individuals to decipher written language. At 87 years of age, John Walton expressed his sentimental attachment when he told an interviewer, “I learned to read and write a little just since freedom Us used Websters old blue back speller and I has one in de house to dis day and I wouldn’t take nothing for it.”5

At the same time, books with competing ideologies floated around the South: those that supporters of the Confederacy designed to inculcate values such as the morality of slavery and the inferiority of African Americans and those that white abolitionists produced to advise black people how to carry out their new roles as free people. African American teachers’ scramble to obtain even the most elementary spelling books to teach the most rudimentary lessons took place within a broader contest for control over what stories textbooks would tell and who would tell them. Both northern and southern white politicians and educators realized that even simple statements inserted into elementary spelling lessons could influence a new generation of readers and thinkers.6

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In the late 1850s, as regional tensions heightened, southern white politicians and educators moved to take control of what their children learned in school. Long dependent on northern teachers and texts, they began a campaign to remove both from the schools of the coming Confederacy. White southerners began publishing books that would introduce into the classroom values that they held dear, interposing lessons deemed appropriate for a slave society into elementary reading and spelling books. In addition to the values of politeness, honesty, and hard work that northern spelling books included, the elementary texts set out to convince young, white, southern readers that black slaves were better off than poor whites, that slavery was a biblically approved institution, and that northerners, including the despot Abraham Lincoln, sought to deprive white southerners of their God-given rights.6

Marinda Branson Moore, one of the more prolific authors of Confederate textbooks, was intent on conveying to her young readers that preserving the status quo would be the best option for black people. In a book that began its lessons with the spellings of monosyllabic words such as cat and bat, Moore introduced reading lessons like this one to support her philosophy that freedom was worse than slavery:

1. Here comes old aunt Ann. She is quite old. See how she leans on her stick.
2. When she was young she did good work, but now she can not work much. But she is not like a poor white woman.
3. Aunt Ann knows that her young Miss, as she calls her, will take care as long as she lives.
4. Many poor white folks would be glad to live in her house and eat what Miss Kate sends out for dinner.7
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Moore also spiced her elementary geographical reader with judgments of black inferiority.8 Moore denoted clear distinctions among the “Races of men.” Europeans and Americans, mostly white or Caucasian, were more civilized and ranked far above the rest. They had churches, schools, and systems of government, and they treated women with respect. For Moore, the African or Negro race from Africa had no redeeming qualities. They were slothful, vicious, dull, and cruel to each other, selling their prisoners to white people as slaves. In Africa, they knew nothing of Jesus, and the climate was so unhealthy that white men could not go there to convert them. As a result, “the slaves who are found in America are in much better condition.” This is what the white children in the new schools of the southern Confederacy learned—lessons well-designed to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy.

With freedpeople’s schools opening just as these books reached the market, one can well imagine them falling into the hands of eager new black readers, transmitting the very lessons that the existence of freedpeople’s schools meant to counteract. However, not one African American teacher in post-emancipation Georgia reported using a recognized Confederate textbook. Even though they were desperate for books, black teachers, too, may have made political choices about what they would use in the classroom.

171207_Reconstruction_Reading-book

Following emancipation, abolitionists undertook a corresponding enterprise to produce textbooks for the freedpeople. Several northern whites produced books aimed at inculcating “northern values” into freed African Americans. In 1865 and 1866, the American Tract Society, a Boston-based Congregational Church affiliate, published The Freedman’s Spelling Book. The book aimed to explain rules very simply and to introduce words that related to “important practical subjects; as occupations, domestic life, civil institutions, morals, education, and natural science.” While teaching spelling and reading were of utmost priority, the publishers also wanted to impart practical information that would be of use to the freedpeople “in the new condition into which Providence has raised them.”

Aside from its name, at first glance, the Freedman’s Spelling Book did not appear to be so different from other contemporary northern spelling books. It presented lessons of etiquette and morality among the vocabulary words. Occasionally it was explicit, as in lesson 173, where it urged freedpeople to be economical: “A freedman should be provident; that is, he should provide for the future, and not be negligent.” Other messages tended to be more subtle and could be read to have mass appeal. However, when read simultaneously with another publication by the American Tract Society, Isaac W. Brinckerhoff ’s Advice to Freedmen, published in 1864 or 1865, it is easy to see how teachers with similar sensibilities and beliefs would have amplified the spelling books’ lessons in the classroom.9

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Brinckerhoff, a white Baptist minister from Ithaca, New York, served as a plantation superintendent and teacher in the South Carolina Sea Islands from 1862–63. In his book, he addressed freedpeople directly, always with the condescending tone of a wise elder, introducing himself to them “as a friend who is doing all that he can to promote your welfare and the welfare of your people.” Brinckerhoff assured those who would read the book as well as those who would hear it read by literate friends that he saw human qualities in them. “Though you have for generations been a dependent and enslaved race, yet with many visible marks of degradation still upon you,” he told them, “there is evidence of a God-given manhood within, which only needs to be properly developed and rightly cultivated to make you happy, prosperous, and useful.”10

Both the Freedman’s Spelling Book and Brinckerhoff ’s Advice to Freedmen sought to instill African Americans with a sense of obligation and loyalty to northern white men. The spelling book paired an illustration of a white soldier being greeted by a small white girl with a story of five sentences. The man had just returned home from the war. He was glad to see his little daughter. “Let us be joyful that the war is at an end,” the story continued. “It was sad to see men die in battle, but it was to make us free. We will not forget all that God did for us.” This insistence to African Americans that white men had died to make them free neglected any mention that black men had also fought for their freedom. Brinckerhoff joined in this omission when he wrote, under the heading “How You Became Free”: “Many thousand households at the north are clothed in mourning, and many tears are shed for the dead who have been slain. With treasure and precious blood your freedom has been purchased. Let these sufferings and sacrifices never be forgotten when you remember that you are not now a slave, but a freedman.”11

In her lessons to white southern children, Marinda Moore reinforced a pro-slavery ideology that insisted African Americans were contented slaves who, even after being lured away by northern whites, returned to serve their former masters as loyal servants. Brinckerhoff, the white northerner, also represented himself as paternalistic caretaker, handing out advice to a benighted people. As Moore did, he too made claims on African American loyalty. While Moore’s textbooks influenced white boys and girls to believe that blacks belonged in slavery, Brinckerhoff’s book surely made it into freedpeople’s classrooms and into the spaces where freedpeople gathered to listen to the readers in their communities.

As African Americans announced to the world that they wanted to be literate, they found an odd collection of books in the libraries of their oppressors. Noah Webster created a book that renounced British conventions. Secessionist southerners declared their separateness from the rest of the nation with separate texts to indoctrinate their children. And white abolitionists celebrated the end of slavery while attempting to instill a sense of obligation in African Americans. Each of these actions signaled radical changes and underscored the political work that textbooks do. In the aftermath of slavery, African Americans were in no position to create their own textbooks to promote a worldview.

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From Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams. Copyright © 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

1. School report of Tunis Campbell, Jan. 1, 1866, M799, roll 20, FBR.

2. Statement of Joseph Warren quoted in John W. Alvord, Second Semi-Annual Report on Schools and Finances, July 1, 1866 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868), 7, reprinted in John W. Alvord, Semi-Annual Reports on Schools for Freedmen: Numbers 1–10, January 1866–July 1870 (New York: AMS Press, 1980).

3. Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 76; Paul Leicester Ford, “Webster’s Spelling-Book: Early American Text-Books Noah Webster’s Great Enterprise,” reprinted from the New York Evening Post, n.d., Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

4. Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, ed. David W. Blight (New York: Bedford Books, 1993), 63.

5. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), vol. 5, pt. 4, p. 149.

6. Proceedings of the Convention of Teachers of the Confederate States, Assembled at Columbia, South Carolina, April 28th, 1863 (Macon, Ga.: Burke, Boykin, and Company), 18, in Confederate Imprints, 143 reels (microfilm; New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications, 1972), reel 113, no. 4009.

7. Marinda Branson Moore, The First Dixie Reader: Designed to Follow the Dixie Primer (Raleigh, N.C.: Branson, Farrar, and Company, 1863), 14.

8. Marinda Branson Moore, The Geographical Reader, for the Dixie Children (Raleigh: Branson, Farrar, and Company, 1863), 9–10.

9. American Tract Society, Freedman’s Spelling Book, 79; Isaac W. Brinckerhoff, Advice to Freedmen, vol. 4 of Freedmen’s Schools and Textbooks, ed. Morris.

10. Brinckerhoff, Advice to Freedmen, 16.

11. American Tract Society, Freedman’s Spelling Book, 22; Brinckerhoff, Advice to Freedmen, 6–7.