Education History of the Negro 13

Education History of the Negro 13


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



The truth is, there is a vast inert mass of stupidity and ignorance, too dense for individual

effort to enlighten or remove, in all communities cursed with the institution of slavery.

Disguise the unwelcome truth as we may, slavery is the parent of ignorance


Books by and About Hinton Rowan Helper

The Impending Crisis of the South / Southern Outcast / Abolitionist Racist  / The Land of Gold: Reality versus Fiction

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Up From Slavery

A Documentary History of Negro Education

Compiled By Rudolph Lewis

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Mrs. Margaret Douglass Is Arrested, Tried, and Convicted

of Teaching Negro Children to Read in Norfolk, Virginia, 1853

A Southern lady living with a daughter in Norfolk, Virginia, sixty-six years ago and being greatly interested in the religious and moral instruction of colored children and finding that the Sunday school where they were allowed to attend was not sufficient, invited them to come to her house, where in a back room upstairs she and her daughter taught them to read and write. She knew that it was against the law to teach slaves, and so she was careful to take none in her school but free colored children. One day a couple of city constables entered with a warrant and marched the two teachers and the children to the Mayor’s office, where she was charged with teaching them to read, contrary to law. She explained that none of the children were slaves and that she had no idea that a child could not be taught to read simply because it was black. But the Mayor told her that this was the law, but as she had acted in good faith he would dismiss the case. But the Grand Jury heard of it and indicted her, and at the next term of court she was tried for a violation of the Virginia code which provided that every assemblage of negroes for the purpose of religious worship, where it was conducted by a negro, and every assemblage of negroes for instruction in reading and writing, or in the night time, for any purpose, was unlawful, and if a white person assembled with negr6es to instruct them to read and write, he should be fined and imprisoned. She refused the services of a lawyer and defended herself, and though she called several witnesses to show that the same thing had been done for years in the Sunday schools in the city, the jury convicted her, but placed the penalty at a fine of only one dollar, But this was overruled by the judge who sentenced her to be imprisoned for a month, which sentence was duly carried Out. . . . *

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For full account of the trial, see John D. Lawson (Ed), American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials Which Hare Takes Place in the United Stales, from the Beginning of Our Government to the present Day (St.. Louis, F. H. Thomas Law Book Co., 19171, Vii, pp.45-60. For her own account of the case, see The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglas, A Southern Woman, Who Was Imprisoned for One Month, in the Common Jail, Under thee Laws of Virginia, for the Crime of Teaching Free Colored Children to Read (Boston,, John P. Jewett and Company, 1854).

A copy of this book is in the Duke University Library; microcopy in the Southern Historical Collection, the University of North Carolina. For the brutal treatment of Prudence Crandall, a well-educated young white woman who admitted Negro girls to her boarding school in Connecticut in the early 1830’s, see Carter G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, pp. 171-75.

Mrs. Douglass was born in Washington, to. C., but removed while quite young to Charleston, South Carolina, where she was married and resided until 1845, when at the death of her son, she went with her daughter, Rosa, to Norfolk, Va., to reside. Though a slave-owner herself and the daughter of slaveholders, she took an interest in giving religious instruction to Negro children.

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Hinton Rowan Helper

and the Baneful Influences of Slavery, 1857 

In one way or another we are more or less subservient to the North every day of our lives. In infancy we are swaddled in Northern muslin; in childhood we are humored with Northern gewgaws; in youth we are instructed Out of Northern books; at the age of maturity we sow our “wild Oats” on Northern soil; in middle-life we exhaust our wealth, energies and talents in the dishonorable vocation of entailing our dependence on our children and on our children’s children, and, to the neglect of our own interests and the interests of those around us, in giving aid and succor to every department of Northern power; in the decline of life we remedy our eye-sight with Northern spectacles, and support our infirmities with Northern canes; in old age we are drugged with Northern physic; and, finally, when we die, our inanimate bodies, shrouded in Northern cambric, are stretched upon the bier, borne to the grave in a Northern carriage, entombed with a Northern spade, and memorized with a Northern slab!

Slavery is a shame, a crime, and a curse—a great moral, social, civil, and political evil—an oppressive burden to the blacks, and an incalculable injury to the whites-a stumbling block to the nation, an impediment to progress, a damper on all the nobler instincts, principles, aspirations and enterprises of man, and a dire enemy to every true interests.

But more than this—where a system of enforced servitude prevails, a fearful degree of ignorance prevails also, as its necessary accompaniment. The enslaved masses are, of course, thrust back from the fountains of knowledge by the strong arm of law, while the poor non-slaveholding classes are almost as effectually excluded from the institutions of learning by their poverty–the sparse population of slaveholding districts being unfavorable to the maintenance of free schools, and the exigencies of their condition forbidding them to avail themselves of any more costly educational privileges.

It is true, these States [slave States] have their educated men,–the majority of whom owe their literary culture to the colleges of the North. Not that there are no Southern colleges—for there are institutions, so called, in a majority of the Slave States.—Some of them, too, are not deficient in the appointments requisite to our higher educational institutions; but as a general thing, Southern colleges are colleges only in name, and will scarcely take rank with a third-rate Northern academy, while our academies, with a few exceptions, are immeasurably inferior to the public schools of New-York, Philadelphia, and Boston. 

The truth is, there is a vast inert mass of stupidity and ignorance, too dense for individual effort to enlighten or remove, in all communities cursed with the institution of slavery. Disguise the unwelcome truth as we may, slavery is the parent of ignorance, and ignorance begets a whole brood of follies and of vices, and every one of these is inevitably hostile to literary culture. The masses, if they think of literature at all, think of it only as a costly luxury, to be monopolized by the few.

The proportion of white adults over twenty years of age in each State, who cannot read and write, to the whole white population, is as follows:

Connecticut 1 to every 568 Louisiana 1 to every  38½ Vermont 1       ”      473 Maryland 1               27 New Hampshire 1       ”      310 Mississippi 1               20 Massachusetts 1              166 Delaware 1               18 Maine 1              108 South Carolina 1               17 Michigan 1                97 Missouri 1               16 Rhode Island 1                67 Alabama 1               15 New Jersey 1                58 Kentucky 1               13½ New York 1                56 Georgia 1               13 Pennsylvania 1                50 Virginia, 1               12½ Ohio 1                43 Arkansas 1               11½ Indiana,     1                18 Tennessee 1               11 Illinois 1                17 North Carolina 1                 7

In this table, Illinois and Indiana are the only Free States which, in point of education, are surpassed by any of the Slave States; and this disgraceful fact is owing, principally, to the influx of foreigners, and to immigrants from the Slave States. New-York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania have also a large foreign element in their population, that swells very considerably this percentage of ignorance. For instance, New-York shows, by the last census, a population of 98,722 who cannot read and write, and of this number 68,052 are foreigners; Rhode Island; 3,607, of whom 2,359 are foreigners; Pennsylvania, 76,272, of whom 24,989 are foreigners. 

On the other band, the ignorance of the Slave States is principally native ignorance, but comparatively few emigrants from Europe seeking a home upon a soil cursed with “the peculiar institution.” North Carolina has a foreign population of only 340, South Carolina only 104, Arkansas only 27, Tennessee only 505, and Virginia only 1,137, who cannot read and write; while the aggregate of native ignorance in these five States (exclusive of the slaves, who are debarred all education by law) is 278,948! 

No longer ago than 1837, Governor Clarke, of Kentucky, in his message to the Legislature of that State, declared that “by the computation of those most familiar with the subject, one-third of the adult population of the State are unable to write their names;” and Governor Campbell, of Virginia, reported to the Legislature, that “from the returns of ninety-eight clerks, it appeared that of 4,614 applications for marriage licenses in 1837, no less than 1,047 were made by men unable to write.”

In the Slave States the proportion of free white children between the ages of five and twenty, who are found at any school or college, is not quite one-fifth of the whole; in the Free States, the proportion is more than three-fifths.

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Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, pp.22.23; 184; 398.99; 406.08. Helper was born in Davie County, North Carolina, and was graduated from Mocksville Academy near his home in 1845, having been taught by “the renowned Peter S. Ney (supposedly the field marshal of Napoleon), and by the Reverend Baxter Clegg.” Although he had been a Whig he identified himself with the newly formed Republican party. His Impending Crisis was rejected by several reputable publishers, including Harper’s, Scribner’s and Appleton’s, and was finally published in 1857 after the youthful author had guaranteed a New York book agent against financial loss. 

“This book was probably the most Caustic, scathing, and vituperative criticism of slavery and slaveholders ever written. No volume was ever more thoroughly condemned or more heartily praised. It probably had the greatest circulation of any book of non-fiction ever published in the United States, unless it was Harveys Coin’s Financial School near the close of the last century. With the possible exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin it crested a greater political furore than any volume ever published in America, and it had a tremendous bearing on Lincoln’s election in 1860 and on the sectional conflict which followed. . . . To own a copy was against good taste and traitorous to the South. Worse than that, it was a penal offense to own or circulate a copy. Three men were hanged in Arkansas for owning copies. . . . —Hugh T, Lefler, Hinton Rowan Helper– Advocate of A White America (Charlottesville, Va., The Historical Publishing Co., 1935), pp. 6, 7.

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Helper, Hinton Rowan1829–1909, American writer, b. Davie Co., N.C. He was in California during the gold rush and later returned east to write The Land of Gold (1855). In his next book, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), Helper, this son of the Old South, wrote a strident anti-slavery treatise which attacked slavery and enraged the South. In 1860 the Republican party distributed 100,000 copies of the book. Helper condemned slavery not on humanitarian or moral grounds, but because it was an economic threat to the poor whites of the South. Though an abolitionist, Helper was also a racist, which can be seen in his book Nojoque (1867), which contains vicious attacks on African Americans for their alleged basic inferiority.

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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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Ancient African Nations

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Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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update 22 July 2008



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