ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education

Compiled By Rudolph Lewis




Chancellor William Harper of South Carolina Comments on the Education of Slaves, 1852


Odium has been cast upon our legislation, on account of its forbidding the elements of education to be communicated to slaves. But, in truth, what injury is done to them by this? He who works during the day with his hands, does not read in intervals of leisure for his amusement, or the improvement of his mind–or the exceptions are so very rare, as scarcely to need the being provided for. Of the many slaves whom I have known capable of reading, I have never known one to read anything but the Bible, and this task they impose on themselves as matter of duty. 

Of all methods of religious instruction, however, this, of reading for themselves, would be the most inefficient–their comprehension is defective, and the employment is to them an unusual and laborious one. There are but very few who do not enjoy other means more effectual for religious instruction. There is no place of worship opened for the white population, from which they are excluded. I believe it a mistake, to say that the instructions there given are not adapted to their comprehension, or calculated to improve them. If they are given as they ought to be–practically, and without pretension, and are such as are generally intelligible to the free part of the audience, comprehending all grades of intellectual capacity,–they will not be unintelligible to slaves. 

I doubt whether this be not better than instruction, addressed specially to themselves–which they might look upon as a device of the master’s, to make them more obedient and profitable to himself.. Their minds, generally, show a strong religious tendency, and they are fond of assuming the office of religious instructors to each other; and perhaps their religious notions are not much more extravagant than those of a large portion of the free population of our country. I am not sure that there is a much smaller proportion of them, than of the free population, who make some sort of religious profession. It is certainly the master’s interest that they should have proper religious sentiments, and if he fails in his duty towards them, we may be sure that the consequences will be visited not upon them, but upon him.

If there were any chance of their elevating their rank and condition in society, it might be matter of hardship, that they should be debarred those rudiments of knowledge which open the way to further attainments. But this they know cannot be, and that further attainments would be useless to them. Of the evil of this, I shall speak hereafter. A knowledge of reading, writing, and the elements of arithmetic, is convenient and important to the free laborer, who is the transactor of his own affairs, and the guardian of his own interests–but of what use would they he to the slave? These alone do not elevate the mind of character, if such elevation were desirable

Pro-Slavery Arguments; As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, Containing the Several Essays, on the Subject, of Chancellor Harper, Governor Hammond, Sr. Simms, and professor Dew (Charleston: Walker, Richards and Company, 1852), pp.36-38.

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William Harper Bio (1790-1847)

William Harper (1790-1847, Class of 1808), first a lawyer, went on to become a noted South Carolina judge and U.S. Senator. He was elected to the lower house of the state legislature in 1828. That same year he was elected a chancellor of the state and served until 1830, when he was elected judge of the circuit court of appeals. He later resigned and again became a chancellor, which he remained until his death.

Harper also served on the Board of Trustees of South Carolina College.

The articulation of pro-slavery literature probably rests with South Carolina Chancellor (or Chief Judge) William Harper, whose many orations, legal decisions, and articles contributed immensely to the legality of slavery in Southern culture.

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William Harper’s Apology (1837)

Slavery was forced upon us by the most extremist exigency of circumstances in a struggle for very existence. Without it, it is doubtful whether a white man would now be existing on this continent–certain that, if there were, they would be in a states of the utmost destitution, weakness, and misery. I neither deprecate nor resent the gift of slavery.

The Africans brought to us had been slaves in their own country and only underwent a change of masters…that there are great evils in a society where slavery exists, and that the institution is liable to great abuse, I have already said. But the whole of human life is a system of evils and compensations. The free laborer has few real guarantees from society, while security is one of the compensations of the slave’s humble position. There have been fewer murders of slaves than of parents, children, and apprentices in society where slavery does not exist. The slave offers no temptation to the murderer, nor does he really suffer injury from his master. Who but a driveling fanatic has thought of the necessity of protecting domestic animals from the cruelty of their owners?

…It is true that the slaved is driven to labor by stripes (lashes); and if the object of punishment be to produce obedience or reformation with the lest permanent inure, it is the best method of punishment. Men claim that this intolerable. It is not degrading to a slave, nor is tit felt to be so. Is it degrading to a child?

Odium (hatred) has been cast upon our legislation on account of its forbidding the elements of education to be communicated to slaves. But in truth what injury has been done them by this? He who works during the day with his hands does not read in intervals of leisure for is amusement or the improvement of his mind–or the exception is so rare as scarcely to need the being provided for. If there were any chance of elevating their rank, the denial of the rudiments of education might be a matter of hardship. But this they know cannot be and that further attainments would be useless to them.

…Supposing finally that the abolitionists should effect their purpose. What would be the result? The first and most obvious effect would be to put an end to the cultivation of our great Southern staple (cotton)…the cultivation of the great staple drops cannot be carried on in any portion of our own country where there are not slaves…Even if it were possible to procure laborers at all, what planter would venture to carry on his operations? Imagine an extensive rice or cotton plantation cultivated by free laborers who might perhaps strike for an increase of wages at a season when the neglect of a few days would insure the destruction of the whole crop. I need hardly say that these staples cannot be produced to any extent where the proprietor of the soil cultivates it with his own hands.

And what would be the effect of putting an end to the cultivation of these staples and thus annihilating, at a blow, two-thirds or three-fourths of our foreign commerce? Can any same mind contemplate such a result without terror? Our slavery has not only given existence to millions of slaves within our own territories; it has given the means of subsistence, and therefore of existence to millions of free men in our Confederate States, enabling them to send forth their swarms to overspread the plains and forests of the West and appear as the harbingers of civilization. Not only on our continent, but on the other it has given existence (in textile mills) to hundreds of thousands and the means of comfortable subsistence to millions. A distinguished citizen of our state has lately stated that our great staple, cotton, has contributed more than anything else of later times to the progress of civilization. By enabling the poor to obtain cheap, and becoming clothing, it has inspired a taste for comfort, the first stimulus to civilization.


Chapter VI. “The Instruction of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight.. A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1953

Chapter 10 “Up From Slavery: Educational and other Rights of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.

Many states had laws prohibiting the education of blacks; here black youngsters are turned away at the school door

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon’s violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King’s assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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10 January 2012




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