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  • Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom
  • Steven Mintz
Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. By Heather Andrea Williams. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Pp. 304. $29.95.)

At a time when public attention is fixated on the racial gap in student achievement—think No Child Left Behind, school vouchers, and a litany of complaints about the stigmatizing effects of "acting white"—Self-Taught, a history of African American education in the South from the antebellum era through Reconstruction, could scarcely be more timely. It explores a time period when education was a political act, not only challenging claims of racial inferiority but signifying self-determination, self-worth, and the capacity to interpret Scripture for oneself. Above all, participation in politics—through newspaper editorials, letters to public officials, and petitions to legislators—depended on education.

Williams's goal in this forcefully argued, richly researched study is to place African Americans, slave and free, at the center of the story of black education in the mid-nineteenth-century South, a position that has long been monopolized by the Freedmen's Bureau, benevolent organizations such as the American Missionary Society, and Northern missionary teachers. She begins her book by showing how an estimated five to ten percent of enslaved African Americans succeeded in "stealing" an education despite laws and customs that forbade it. Like Janet Duitsman Cornelius in When I Can Read My Title Clear, she offers vivid examples of the ways that enslaved people learned to read and write in clandestine schools, from forbidden books, or with the aid of sympathetic whites. [End Page 94]

In subsequent chapters, Williams underscores the high value that former slaves placed on education. She persuasively demonstrates that when Northern benevolent societies sent teachers to the South, they were responding to a widespread demand among the ex-slaves, who not only donated their churches and built cabins for schools and paid tuition but also served as teachers in large numbers. As early as 1868, African American teachers outnumbered white teachers by at least five percent. Indeed, it was the black emphasis on education that ultimately inspired working-class Southern whites to demand publicly funded school systems for their children.

Self-Taught is far more critical of the Northern missionary societies than such previous books as Robert Morris's Reading, 'Riting, and Reconstruction and Jacqueline Jones's Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks. Promised funding for black schools frequently failed to materialize. Black teachers were dispatched to the least desirable rural areas, and black mothers, but not their white counterparts, were denied teaching positions. Worse yet, many Northern missionaries (with the notable exception of the Quakers) expected to control the administration and curriculum of the schools, and they withheld financial assistance when blacks challenged their authority. Williams also chastises the benevolent societies for their color consciousness and their excessive paternalism.

A major theme in Self-Taught is the struggle for control, pitting Southern blacks against secular and religious Northern benevolent societies and white Southerners of various classes. One the book's most fascinating sections explores African American efforts to maintain autonomous educational institutions, including an instance in St. Louis in 1864 in which a local black school board challenged white missionaries by demanding a black-run school system. But the gravest threats to black education came from unreconstructed white Southerners. Arson and physical violence directed against teachers and students were common. In a number of instances, whites who had served as trustees for antebellum black churches sued to prevent the structures from housing black schools.

The book concludes by summarizing a 1911 study of black Southern schools by W. E. B. Du Bois and a team of researchers at Fisk University. In that year, when approximately 30 percent of nonwhites over the age of ten were illiterate, a majority of black children did not attend school. Those who did had a school term that lasted just three to six months. Most black teachers, Du Bois concluded, were underpaid and undertrained. Black school facilities were "wretched and inadequate," and worst of all, a focus on manual and industrial training diminished the amount of time...


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