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............................................................................................................................................................. ............................................................................................................................................................. ............................................................................................................................................................. Chapter One At the Dawn of Freedom The long, long years of law against slaves learning to read, has created in them a deep determination to master all the di≈culties that lie in the way of gaining knowledge now that a way is opened. National Freedmen’s Relief Association, 1863 I never saw people more anxious nor Schollars labor harder to learn. Robert Lindsey, former slave owner and Confederate veteran, 1869 Their steady eagerness to learn is just something amazing. To be deprived of a lesson is a severe punishment. ‘‘I got no reading to-day,’’ or no writing, or no sums, is cause for bitter tears. This race is going to rise. It is biding its time. Laura Towne, 1877 A t the very dawn of freedom, well before the nation moved grudgingly toward formal emancipation, southern black slaves began to forge their own destiny. From the first days of freedom, through the displacements of war, and into Reconstruction, they pursued many strategies calculated to assure their self-emancipation. During the war, they fled plantations to reach Union lines. They reconstituted families, built their own churches, negotiated contracts. And they demanded access to literacy. They raised teachers from the literate among themselves, welcomed teachers from afar, even urged former slave owners to teach them, and filled schoolhouses to overflowing. Out of their great poverty they raised funds to buy land for their schools, supplied the labor to build the schools, supported teachers as best they could, and maintained such an 2 At the Dawn of Freedom e√ective network of schools across the South after the Civil War that W. E. B. Du Bois could argue that the postwar system of southern public education arose from the foundation laid by the freed people.∞ Slavery’s great failure lay in its inability to crush the black longing to read and write. The dream of literacy would not die despite two and a half centuries of bondage and enforced illiteracy. Many of the slave states made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. Where black literacy was not banned by law, it was e√ectively banned by custom. Many slaveholders meted out fearsome punishment to slaves who were caught with reading or writing materials. Literacy opened the possibility of encountering ideas opposed to human bondage and carried the potential of written communication between black conspirators. More important ideologically, keeping the masses of African Americans illiterate contributed to the myth of racial inferiority, a conveniently circular logic: blacks were intellectually incapable of mastering the skills of literacy; illiterate blacks were proof of black intellectual incapacity. Though some slaves succeeded in stealing their literacy and an occasional slaveholder taught a favored slave to read and write, it is likely that by the time of the American Civil War, not more than one in ten southern blacks were literate. Yet the black desire for literacy burned bright to the very end of slavery.≤ African Americans acted on the possibilities of freedom with an overwhelming surge toward the schoolhouse door. As W. E. B. Du Bois observed , African Americans responded to their flight from slavery di√erently than any other largely illiterate people freed from bondage. Most former serfs and slaves have assumed that ignorance was their natural lot, or they have embraced their folk wisdom as superior to formal learning. ‘‘American Negroes never acted thus,’’ Du Bois wrote. ‘‘The very feeling of inferiority which slavery forced upon them fathered an intense desire to rise out of their condition by means of education.’’≥ Seventy years earlier, as the freed people’s response to emancipation was first manifesting itself, John W. Alvord, superintendent of freedmen’s education within the Freedmen ’s Bureau, made the same observation. ‘‘This is a wonderful state of things,’’ he wrote in his January 1866 report. ‘‘We have just emerged from a terrific war; peace is not yet declared. There is scarcely the beginning of reorganized society at the south; and yet here is a people long imbruted by slavery, and the most despised of any on earth, whose chains are no sooner broken than they spring to their feet and start up an exceeding great army, clothing themselves with intelligence. What other people on earth have ever shown, while in their ignorance, such a passion for education?’’∂ At the Dawn of Freedom 3 The education of the freed people was, first and foremost, an education by African Americans, the work of the freed people themselves...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469604930
Print ISBN
9780807834206
MARC Record
OCLC
966902865
Pages
336
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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