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
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-8897-1
    Published: November 2009

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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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.


"Groundbreaking. . . Williams marshals enormous primary evidence to reveal a previously untold story. . . . Ultimately, a book of triumphant reading--both enslaved and freedpeople's acts of reading."--Southern Cultures

"An original, informative, and moving account. . . . [A] major corrective study of the struggle of African Americans."--Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Provides a needed corrective to the existing literature. . . . [A] readable and carefully researched work. . . . Represents an important expansion of knowledge about Reconstruction, the South, the political and cultural struggles of African Americans, and the nation's educational system."--North Carolina Historical Review

"Makes contributions beyond the author's stated goal of documenting the agency of blacks in acquiring literacy. . . . Williams provides a useful model for how to elucidate relations of power while also explaining their significance for larger historical developments. Hopefully, her success will inspire other historians to pursue similar work."--Florida Historical Quarterly

"This book is a testimony to the resiliency of the indomitable human spirit. . . . Further evidence of the great indebtedness of African Americans of today to the slaves and freedmen."--Louisiana History

"Provides us with glimpses into the often heroic activities of African American teachers during this period, and illuminates their education, their teaching philosophies, and the numerous obstacles they overcame. . . .A wonderful book that clearly explains and fully documents the 'history of freedpeople's role in educating themselves.'"--Journal of African American History