Not only did African Americans improve their own educational opportunities, but they also helped improve education for whites by challenging the plantation owners’ educational paradigm that schooling happened in the home, and not in public schools.
That was often as far as things went—until the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent end of the Civil War.
While conducting research on African American female seminaries, I found myself reaching back to a very rich yet little-known history of educational efforts by African Americans both during and after slavery.
The narratives of those days should remind us just how stubborn and enduring the hunger for education has been in American life.
In post-bellum Southern states, initiatives were carried out to educate freed slaves in subjects beyond religion.
The foundation for these efforts came from the freed slaves themselves.After the Civil War, freed slaves themselves took the initiative to push education beyond religious instruction.The focus of my research and writing is women’s involvement in higher education, especially women from the Pentecostal and Holiness faith traditions.But some slaves found ways around prejudice and law to satisfy their hunger for knowledge.Their main antebellum sourcebook for literacy was the Bible.When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us.No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived.In the United States, slave masters were intent on keeping their slaves illiterate.Two events drove Southerners to discourage literacy.Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed.She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me.