Self-Taught

African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

By Heather Andrea Williams

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Self-Taught

320 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 7 illus., 1 table, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5821-9
    Published: February 2007
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7824-3
    Published: February 2007
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8897-1
    Published: February 2007

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.



Historian Heather Andrea Williams, author of Self-Taught,on the debt we owe African American pioneers in education—enslavedand free.

Q: What is the biggest misconception that people have about the history ofAfrican American education?
A: There are so many, but probably the biggest one is that people oftensay, "During slavery black people could not learn to read and write,"and that is the end of the conversation. It is true that most slavestates in the American South enacted laws that made it a crime forenslaved and sometimes free black people to learn to read or write andfor others to teach them. Those laws were very effective and most blackpeople did not have access to education, but what I have found is thatmany people violated the laws by learning to read and write.

Many former slaves told of learning to read from a slave mistress whobelieved that it was her Christian duty to teach a slave to read theBible. Some, especially in the early periods, joined churches becausethey knew that ministers would sometimes teach them to read so that theycould read the catechism. Others, usually men and boys, found ways tobribe white boys and men to teach them to read. They would take food ormarbles or a knife or whatever they had to trade for a lesson. Women whowere slaves in the home of the master would encourage their young whitecharges to tell them everything they had learned in school that day.

Q:  Was there a breakthrough moment in your research for this book?
A: The big breakthrough came when I found the Life and History of theRev. Elijah Marrs. Marrs was a slave on a farm in Kentucky who, as achild, got some white boys to teach him to read. Later a black man onthe farm taught him to write. On the farm he became known as the ShelbyCounty Negro Clerk because he wrote letters for the other slaves andread letters that they received.

When Union troops arrived in Kentucky, Marrs was in his early twentiesand he gathered twenty-five other men from the local area and theymarched off in the night to enlist. He taught school for other formerslaves in the army and when the war ended he wrote letters to thefederal government advocating civil rights for black people and hetaught school for decades, into the early twentieth century.

Marrs was a key figure for me, and he sort of walks through the entirebook. He is in the first chapter and in almost every subsequent chapter.The epilogue revolves around him because his life is able to tell us somuch about the transformations for African Americans from slavery intofreedom.

Q: The book jacket of Self-Taught features a patchwork quilt of your owndesign overlaid with a nineteenth-century photograph of two AfricanAmerican women bent over a book. One of the women appears to be teachingthe other to read. What inspired you to juxtapose these two images?
A: The photograph of the two women bent over a book really appealed tome for a number of reasons. Of course, the book was a focal point. Alsothough, the woman who is seated is much older than the one who isstanding. In fact, the one standing is a girl. I like the photographbecause it is a bit ambiguous. It is possible that the woman alreadyknows how to read, or it is possible that the girl is teaching her. Thisis a phenomenon that I write about in the bookÑchildren going to thefirst schools for freedpeople and going home to teach their parents andother adults how to read and write.

I used fabric for the quilt that I thought the woman might have used. Ithas a very scrappy feel that mimics the boards inside the room. Then, Ialso used very large quilting stitches that are even visible in thephotograph on the cover, because I imagined that this woman would havequilted at night with very little light and would not have been able tomake the very tiny quilt stitches that are coveted in our time.

Q: You credit African Americans with transforming the face of education in the South. How so?
A: Absolutely. W. E. B. Du Bois was the first to make this claim in hisbook Black Reconstruction. Historian James Anderson has also said asmuch. My research confirms their assertions with lots and lots ofevidence. Before slavery ended, most Southern states had nothingresembling a public school system. Wealthy whites objected to payingtaxes to support education for those with lesser means.

As soon as slavery ended, freedpeople began setting up schools all overthe South. The schools were packed with adults and children wanting tolearn to read and write. Many southern whites were shocked, appalled,infuriated by this phenomenon. Some responded by burning down schools,threatening teachers, whipping and killing black teachers, and writingeditorials dripping with disgust. Eventually though, some white elitesbegan to notice that the black people, former slaves, were outpacingpoor whites on the educational front. "They are getting ahead of 'ourpoor whites,'" they complained.

Powerful whites began to discuss the need to provide schooling for poorwhites. Then, during the period of Congressional Reconstruction whenblack men and white Northern Republicans were elected to legislatures inthe South, states passed laws that provided for public schooling forwhites and blacks and imposed taxes to fund the schools. So, becauseblack people had made education a priority, and because when black menand their allies had power they acted on those priorities, poor whitesin the South began to benefit from systems of public education.

Q: Why does your book, set in the South between 1861 and 1871, have relevance today?
A: First and foremost, this is a story that every African American needsto hear, and secondly, whites and other Americans need to hear it aswell. There are many African Americans who know first-hand of their ownfamilies' or their own communities' commitment to education, but whohave not necessarily been exposed to a wider narrative of AfricanAmericans valuing education and taking great risks to acquire it. Thenthere are African Americans, particularly younger ones, who only knowwhat they have heard in the media, or what they see in the attitudes oftheir teachers, and who need to know that they come from a people whobelieved that literacy (and, more broadly, education) could give themaccess to rights, and protection, and wealth in this country; that blackpeople sacrificed time and hard-earned money to build educationalinstitutions, and endured threats and physical violence to make surethat they and their children could have access to education; thatwanting to learn is by no means a white value.

I think that white people and other non-black people, even the mostwell-meaning ones, and black people alike, live in a society that isfilled with negative stereotypes of black people. Most people are noteven conscious of how those stereotypes affect their assumptions andbeliefs. Self-Taught, because it carefully narrates stories about blackambition and self-reliance and resilience, can begin to bring about ashift in how Americans think about black people in slavery and in theyears immediately following it.

I also think that once you see former slaves as individuals who werecommitted to hard work and becoming literate and moving out of poverty,it becomes more difficult to see their descendants in some of thenegative ways in which they are often portrayed in our contemporarysociety. You have to stop and think and wonder if there is more than youare being told or are able to see.