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Reviewed by:
  • Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom
  • L. Mara Dodge
Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. By Heather Andrea Williams ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xiii plus 320 pp. $29.95).

Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, Heather Andrea Williams paints a subtle, compelling, and poignant portrait of freedpeoples' determined efforts to secure the right to an education for themselves and their children. Placing African Americans at the center of her story, Williams argues convincingly that "freedpeople, not northern whites, initiated the educational movement in the South while the Civil War was being fought" (5). Even amidst the chaos of the early months of the war, in contraband camps, freedmen's villages, and on the Sea Islands of Georgia, former slaves immediately turned their energies to establishing makeshift schools. Their first teachers were often former slaves who had managed to "steal an education." Education had long signified empowerment, self-determination, and a privilege of whiteness.

In this finely-crafted, nuanced, and well-written book, Williams brings to light a history that has never been fully told before, telling that story through the words of the protagonists themselves. The case studies and extensive quotes from primary sources create a richly-textured analysis. Because there is little to [End Page 538] critique in this path-breaking work, this review aims to provide the reader with a summary of her major arguments, findings, and conclusions.

Chapter One, "Acquiring Literacy in Slave Communities," explores how literacy was regarded as an "instrument of resistance and liberation" within slave communities (8). Although it was against the law in Southern states to teach slaves to read and write, and even in some to teach free Blacks, enslaved people developed ingenious ways to acquire rudimentary literacy. Despite severe punishments, domestic servants learned from their access to books and newspapers and close relations white children, who could often be persuaded to share their lessons. Williams also presents intriguing evidence of clandestine schools that existed in southern cities as well as rural areas.

In Chapter Two, "Literacy in the First Days of Freedom," Williams argues that it was the freedpeople's own passion for education that inspired and fueled the efforts of Northerners. White northerners "answered, rather than generated, the call for education." (40) She characterizes this relationship as "synergistic." Although roughly 1,400 white northern missionaries and teachers went South between 1862 and the early 1870s, even when Northern whites were the primary teachers, "freedpeople built the schools, paid teachers, and made other contributions to the educational effort." (40)

In Chapter Three, "African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission," Williams documents how black soldiers in the Union Army, over half of whom were former slaves, tirelessly petitioned the army for schools, teachers, books, and educational materials. One reverend noted that he "found everywhere manifested an earnest desire to learn. In hospitals I found them teaching each other to read. Nowhere among our soldiers were papers and books more acceptable than in these colored hospitals." (51) After the war, Black soldiers played a key role in raising funds for many schools and educational institutions, founding several, even though their pivotal role was often written out of the histories of those institutions.

In Chapter Four, "Advocacy for Education," Williams demonstrates how freedpeople attempted to "insert a right to education into their newly gained freedom." Unlike traditional civil rights such as suffrage, jury service, or the right to testify in court, education was not a right enumerated in the Constitution. Despite this, African Americans clearly recognized the role of literacy in securing civic and political rights. African-American conventions, political associations, and delegations to state constitutional conventions pressed for the creation of public school systems while individual parents demanded the right to withdraw their children from the fields or apprenticeships and send them to school

Chapter Five, "Organizing Schools on the Ground," explores the strained partnership between the freedpeople and northern whites, especially in relation to the issue of hiring African-American teachers and principals. She notes that, "Some white Northerners were affronted that the freedpeople expected them to work with them rather than have authority over them." White Northerners...


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