African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

By Heather Andrea Williams

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 EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8897-1
    Published: November 2009
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7824-3
    Published: November 2009

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit

Awards & distinctions

2006 New Scholar Book Award, American Educational Research Association, Division F

2006 Honor Book, Black Caucus of the American Library Association

2005 George A. and Jeanne S. DeLong Book Prize, Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing

2006 Lillian Smith Book Award, Southern Regional Council

In this previously untold story of African American self-education, Heather Andrea Williams moves across time to examine African Americans' relationship to literacy during slavery, during the Civil War, and in the first decades of freedom. Self-Taught traces the historical antecedents to freedpeople's intense desire to become literate and demonstrates how the visions of enslaved African Americans emerged into plans and action once slavery ended.

Enslaved people, Williams contends, placed great value in the practical power of literacy, whether it was to enable them to read the Bible for themselves or to keep informed of the abolition movement and later the progress of the Civil War. Some slaves devised creative and subversive means to acquire literacy, and when slavery ended, they became the first teachers of other freedpeople. Soon overwhelmed by the demands for education, they called on northern missionaries to come to their aid. Williams argues that by teaching, building schools, supporting teachers, resisting violence, and claiming education as a civil right, African Americans transformed the face of education in the South to the great benefit of both black and white southerners.

About the Author

Heather Andrea Williams, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General's Office, is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For more information about Heather Andrea Williams, visit the Author Page.


"Self-Taught is not merely the most comprehensive documentation and analysis of African American education in the South during the 1861-1871 period, it is in every respect the first definitive study of the formative stages of universal literacy and formal education among ex-slaves. Never before has anyone described so fully the broad range of roles and the significant contributions of African Americans to the development of formal and public education in the South for themselves and for the entire region." —James D. Anderson, author of The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935

"With great skill, Heather Williams demonstrates the centrality of black people to the process of formal education — the establishment of schools, the creation of a cadre of teachers, the forging of standards of literacy and numeracy — in the post-emancipation years. As she does, Williams makes the case that the issue of education informed the Reconstruction period — the two-cornered struggle between North and South over the rebuilding of Southern society, the three-cornered struggle between white Northerners, white Southerners, and black people over the nature of education, and the less well-known contest between black Northerners and black Southerners over the direction of African American culture. Self-Taught is a work of major significance." —Ira Berlin, University of Maryland