In the United States today, being literate—having the ability to interact with, understand, and produce written texts—is considered a fundamental right of all people. Americans expect their political and economic leaders to work to increase literacy so that everyone can enjoy the benefits that literacy can bring. Americans would be shocked to hear public proclamations that children should not be allowed to attend school, or that books should be limited in circulation. Yet, in the nineteenth century South, it was commonplace to hear public figures talk about the need to prevent children from learning to read or write and to limit access to written materials to adults.
It was more than mere talk, however. Southern politicians used a variety of methods to limit literacy and its benefits in the antebellum era. Most significantly, an entire race was legally prevented from learning to read and write as states throughout the region prohibited the teaching of literacy to African Americans. In addition, public schools were grossly underfunded because the well-to-do largely decided to support an alternative set of private educational institutions and to send their children to schools outside the region.
State legislators held lengthy debates about how to prevent the spread of printed materials and in several instances passed legislation banning books and broadsides. State governments ordered federal postal officials to stop the delivery of books perceived as harmful. In the 1850s, missionaries from the northern United States offering religious tracts to Southerners were greeted with hostility and threatened with violence by sheriffs and armed patrollers. In the face of such opposition, the American Tract Society eliminated its once-thriving missionary service and pulled from the region virtually every individual charged with the duty of circulating these religious pamphlets.
Political and economic decisions also led to Southerners having restricted access to published materials because of an underdeveloped infrastructure. Books, journals, and newspapers were more difficult to obtain in the South than in the North. Southern publishing houses were virtually nonexistent. Consequently, throughout the nineteenth century, southern children were less likely to have attended school, and southern adults were less likely to be able to read or write than their counterparts in the North or West.
The initial aims of the efforts against literacy were relatively simple. Prevent the enslaved population of the South—African-born slaves and their descendants— from acquiring literacy so that they would be unable to either initiate revolts or flee to other regions. Whites in the antebellum South constantly were aware of the threat to their well-being by slaves seeking to end their oppression. Slaves frequently outnumbered Whites on the remote and isolated farms and plantations of the rural South.
Slave-ownersу34цы throughout the Atlantic world were mindful of the experience of slave-owners of the French colony of Saint Domingue. The bloody revolution that slaves began in the colony in 1791 ended with the creation of an independent and free Haiti in 1804, forever reminding wary slave-owners and eager slaves of the possibility of a captive people rising in fury and successfully transforming a slave society into one that was free.
That southern Whites restricted literacy among slaves is well known. Less renowned, but executed with equally tragic effectiveness, were efforts to restrict literacy among Whites. Planters and policy makers in the antebellum South did not fear personal violence from their less wealthy neighbors, of course, but the elites were wary of the threat of a lessening of their grip on their hierarchical and patriarchal society. Consequently, policy decisions at state and local levels in the South ensured that poor Whites had limited schooling opportunities. Literacy among these particular Southerners was quite low prior to the 1860s, at least when the group is compared to those of similar social status in the North.
After the Civil War, the poor of the South, both White and Black, again suffered from educational limitations. A failure to provide adequate schools ensured a docile workforce, a stagnating economy, and limited cultural and economic opportunities. Later, when literacy tests came to be used as a method of restricting voting opportunities, the failure of southern schooling restricted participation in political life.
Beginning in the early twentieth century, other policy makers tried to modify earlier arrangements as they sought to develop educational reforms for middle-class Whites. Concern for the educational well-being of the poor of both races remained unaddressed. Eventually, however, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, education was seen as a solution to a wide array of social ills specific to the legacy of the earlier efforts to limit literacy.
The widespread operation against literacy in the South challenged the very core of American national identity, and its consequences—cultural, economic, and political— continue to reverberate through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the twenty-first. Southerners today are struggling with both the memory and consequences of the past. When compared to those in other regions of the United States, Southerners have a lower standard of living, remain less educated, and are less likely to own a computer. Historical educational practices, in other words, continue to have an impact.
- Brundage, W. F. (2005). The southern past: A clash of race and memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Cornelius, J. D. (1991). When I can read my title clear: Literacy, slavery, and religion in the antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Gordon, E. E., & Gordon, E. H. (2003). Literacy in America: Historic journey and contemporary solutions. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Williams, H. A. (2005). Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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