In this groundbreaking book, Heather Andrea Williams marshals enormous primary evidence to reveal a previously untold story of African American self-help and self-determination in the quest for literacy before and after Emancipation. Drawing on expansive archival research and nuanced readings of legislation (Williams is a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General's Office), Williams argues against a "dependence" narrative in which benevolent northern white teachers traveled south to educate ignorant, passive ex-slaves. In place of this libel, Williams shows that enslaved and free African Americans identified education as among their highest values, that they organized to educate themselves, and that they collectively crafted an argument [End Page 87] for public education as a right. The concept that ordinary people have a right to public education was previously unimaginable by any race in the South, and as African Americans spread their demand for state-funded education, they led the way toward the establishment of the southern public schools system in the 1870s.
Williams begins her historical arc in the 1830s, when abolitionism gained traction and northern and southern whites increasingly imposed illiteracy on free and enslaved blacks. The stakes of literacy were high: "Blacks wanted access to reading and writing as a way to attain the very information and power that whites strove to withhold from them." Beyond immediately pragmatic concerns, however, lay an understanding that "[m]aintaining a system of bondage in the Age of Enlightenment depended upon the master's being able to speak for the slave, to deny his or her humanity, and to draw a line between slave consciousness and human will" and that the "presence of literate slaves threatened to give lie to the entire system." Enslaved African Americans risked and often suffered violence to organize clandestine schools in cabins, caves, and even pits dug in the ground. After Emancipation, freedpeople pursued literacy and numeracy even as they struggled with homelessness, disease, and hunger. Black Union soldiers forged and fought for a post-war vision in which literacy held a central place: they organized to demand literacy resources from the government, they financially supported schools, and they "taught as they learned," thus spreading literacy among themselves.
African Americans' hunger for education was so visible and widely acknowledged that it became a political tool for white northerners, who sometimes offered education as a way to gain freedpeople's trust and to control African Americans. Williams compellingly traces Reconstruction-era struggles among African Americans and between northerners and southerners, blacks and whites, over the control of African Americans' education. In her final chapter, Williams describes the emergence of an organized, if struggling, system of African American schools that became both an example for and threat to poor whites in the South. While some whites continued to fight black efforts toward self-education, a few poor whites made the remarkable choice to attend freedpeople's schools. The number of white children in black schools was small. (In 1867 , the Freedmen's Bureau counted 470 white and 78,000 black pupils in freedpeople's schools). However, the existence of any white children in black classrooms proved that the schools offered an education whose clear value motivated some white families to violate racial taboos—and assume physical risk for that violation—to learn alongside black children, and often from black teachers.
The history of African American self-education is one of heroic vision and courage in the face of systematic violence and oppression. Williams wisely assumes an understated tone in Self-Taught, allowing the genius of Union soldier and community leader Elijah Marrs and author and activist Mattie Jackson, for example, to emerge through their own words and actions. Self-Taught is, ultimately, [End Page 88] a book of triumphant reading—both enslaved and freedpeople's acts of reading, and Heather Andrea Williams's brilliant uncovering and reading of weighty archival evidence. By documenting nineteenth-century African Americans' desire to read, their organized and individual progress toward that goal, their...