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News Release

For immediate use

March 4, 2005 -- No. 86

In new book, UNC historian details
blacks’ struggles toward education

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL—When Southern racists argued before and during the Civil War that blacks were ignorant, there was at least a fragment of truth to what they said.

After all, who wouldn’t be unfamiliar with the wider world if they were never taught to read and write, and the punishments for trying to learn -- at least until the war ended -- included flogging for slaves and heavy fines for teachers?

Most Southern states indeed passed laws making it a crime for slaves and sometimes even free blacks to learn to read and write and for others to instruct them. The goal of the laws, which were very effective, was to keep blacks from becoming more dissatisfied with their lot in life.

The story of how an increasing number of such people persevered and pursued education despite hardships before and after emancipation -- and those who helped them -- is being told for the first time in a new book by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian Heather Andrea Williams.

UNC Press will publish "Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom" on Monday (March 7).

"I found that many people violated the laws by learning to read and write," Williams said. "Many former slaves told of learning to read from a slave mistress who believed that it was her Christian duty to teach a slave to read the Bible. Some, especially in the early periods, joined churches because they knew that ministers would sometimes teach them so that they could read the catechism."

Black men and boys found ways to bribe white boys and men to teach them, she said. They would take food or other goods to trade for lessons. Women house slaves frequently encouraged white children to tell them everything they had learned in school that day.

"These enslaved people often had a copy of Webster's Spelling Book and would get people to teach them to identify the letters of the alphabet," Williams said. "Then, the next stage was to start teaching other slaves themselves, which many of them did."

A former lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Williams is now assistant professor of history in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. She got the idea, during Dr. John Blassingame’s graduate course at Yale, to explore how many slaves and former slaves actively sought education. Blassingame wrote one of the first books to look at slavery from the perspective of the victims themselves.

Earlier, historians who wrote about slavery in the early to mid-20th Century typically sympathized with Southern slaveholders and viewed slavery as a benign institution that, if anything, worked to the benefit of black people.

"First I read all the books that historians have written about white missionary teachers," she said. "Then I read hundreds of interviews of former slaves who told their stories in the 1930s and 40s. Then I read all the books I could find about education for whites in the South before slavery ended. And I read lots of material collected by the Freedmen's Bureau."

After slavery, an increasing number of blacks cut down trees and built schools or set up schools in their churches, Williams found. Those who had already learned to read became the first teachers, and, when they had exhausted the range of their skills, they wrote letters to Northern missionaries asking them to come to the South to teach.

When missionaries arrived, their hosts supported them any way they could with money, food and fuel for woodstoves. They also protected the teachers, who were both blacks and whites, when local whites threatened them and their rudimentary schools.

A breakthrough in her research came when she found the autobiographical Life and History of the Rev Elijah Marrs, whom she discusses throughout the book. As a child, Marrs got white boys to teach him to read and later wrote letters for other slaves. Later still, he led 25 men to enlist in the Union Army when it reached Kentucky, advocated for civil rights and taught school into the early 20th Century.

One of the great ironies of Southern public education, one first noticed by W.E.B. DuBois, Williams said, was that blacks’ thirst for education unintentionally transformed it in the South. She found much evidence supporting that view.

"Before slavery ended, most Southern states had nothing resembling a public school system, " she said. "North Carolina had the most sophisticated system, but even here, most whites did not receive much formal education."

Wealthy whites sent first their sons and later their daughters too off to private schools and colleges in the North and England, Williams said. They objected to paying taxes to support education for those with lesser means regardless of race.

As soon as slavery ended, freed people began setting up schools all over the South, she said. Adults and children wanting to learn to read and write packed those schools.

"Many southern whites were shocked, appalled, infuriated by this phenomenon," the historian said. "Some responded by burning down schools, threatening teachers, whipping and killing black teachers and writing editorials dripping with disgust."

Eventually though, some white elites began to notice that former slaves were outpacing poor whites on the educational front, Williams said.

Powerful whites began to discuss the need to provide schooling for poor whites. Then, during Congressional Reconstruction when black men and white Northern Republicans were elected to legislatures in the South, states passed laws that provided for public schooling for whites and blacks and imposed taxes to fund the schools.

"So, because black people had made education a priority, and because when black men and their allies had power they acted on those priorities, poor whites in the South began to benefit from systems of public education," she said. "Of course, once the Republicans lost power, funding for public schools became very skewed, with white schools receiving hugely disproportionate amounts of funding."

Besides her college professors, two major influences on Williams were her earlier legal career and her mother, who was head mistress of two schools in Jamaica and founded another in Queens, N.Y.

"She called it a school for gifted children and worked from the assumption that all children have great abilities that need to be drawn out by great teachers," the historian said.

Just a few weeks ago in one of her classes, Williams taught Crusade for Justice, an autobiography by Ida B. Wells, who fought against lynching in the South during the last decade of the 19th Century and into the 20th.

"When we discussed lynching and allegations of rape of white women by black men, I was able to tell my students about a KKK case that I prosecuted in North Carolina in the 1980s where those elements were also present," she said. "The students were in shock because they had thought that such things were a part of a long-removed history."

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Note: Contact Williams at (919) 962-2381 or

UNC Press contact: Gina Mahalek, (919) 966-3561,ext. 234,

News Services contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596