Below is one example. Other states had similar methods. Sadly, this is only part of the unasked-for baggage our educational systems struggle with today.
The North Carolina General Assembly first prohibited anyone from teaching slaves to read or write in 1818, then strengthened the law in 1830 (in the bill reprinted here). The following year, another bill made it illegal for not only slaves but free people of color “to preach or exhort in public, or in any manner to officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting or other association for worship where slaves of different families are collected together.”
Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state: Therefore
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, Shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in the State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction shall at the discretion of the court if a white man or woman be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars or imprisoned and if a free person of colour shall be whipped at the discretion of the court not exceeding thirty nine lashes nor less than twenty lashes.
Be it further enacted that if any slave shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any other slave to read or write the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace and on conviction thereof shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.
Credit text: Legislative Papers, 1830–31 Session of the General Assembly.
For nearly three decades I taught and worked with seminarians in a multiracial, multinational community. Most students were able to thrive. Still, there were some I couldn’t reach. Today I wonder how this legacy of punishing black and brown students and their teachers is being passed on.
These are heavy days and heavy nights. Reaping the Whirlwind comes to mind yet again. Not because of what’s happening now, but because of what was set in motion centuries ago. I pray each of us will become part of a solution.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 September 2020
Image of NC Freedman’s School (1860s) found at ncpedia.org