Part I: Charles Chesnutt In Context

Educating Africans in the New World

But there was another, even more perilous, reason that Chloe Sampson left Fayetteville. Adding to the increasing restrictions, was her dauther’s determination to teach slave children to read and write at a time when the county granted sheriffs the authority to sell the offenders into slavery. Even knowing the consequences, Anne Marie was still determined to teach slave children to read and write and had informed her mother that she had no intention to stop. To understand Anne Marie’s a deep commitment is to understand the history of education for African Americans. Like the history of “free” people of color, it begins long before Ann Marie’s stubborn determination, dating back to policies regarding the Christian conversion of Africans in the New World.  Christian conversion required enlightenment, or the inner experience of God. Enlightenment required the ability to read Christian Scripture. Following this rationale, only Africans who could read the Bible could become enlightened. Such Africans would not only be good Christians, but reliable, productive, and trust-worthy servants. The logic,  however, led to questions of instruction.

In 1919, African American historian, Carter G. Woodson, published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War.  Carter’s groundbreaking study divides proponents of educating Africans and their descendants into three groups:

  1. slave masters who saw education as a way of increasing labor proficiency;
  2. non-slave owning individuals who were sympathetic to oppression;
  3. missionaries who saw education as the way to convert slaves to Christianity.

Results varied for each group. The first category, slave masters who saw education as a way of increasing labor proficiency, viewed education as a matter of investment and followed whatever direction was most profitable. The second category, non-slave owning individuals who were sympathetic to oppression, was composed of individuals who lived in remote settlements that were distant from plantations or urban areas, and was the least effective in arguments for education. The third category, missionaries who saw education as the way to convert slaves to Christianity, was the most effective. This group, driven by Christian conversion, included Catholics and Protestants both competing for converts, thereby giving them collectively the greatest numbers and the most power. French and Spanish settlers were loyal to the Roman Catholic Church; Protestants were loyal to the Established Church of England; and all used religious education as a means to convert Africans.


Converting Africans in the New World

When the King of Spain granted requests by Spanish settlers to use slaves as cheap labor, he mandated two specific conditions: that only Christian slaves could be brought to America, and that slaves in the New World be trained in Christian (Catholic) doctrine. Similarly, French settlers were bound by the Code Noir, which, among other things, required the education of slaves and prohibited the breakup of slave families for individual sale. Evidence of Catholic conversation began in 1634, when a Jesuit missionary in Canada reported teaching the alphabet to an African child. The decade between 1716 and 1726 saw a significant rise in Jesuit plantations in Louisiana. Later slave owners petitioned to the King to guarantee their property rights so that they might send slaves to France to be confirmed in their religious instruction and to learn an art or trade to practice on their return to the New World. While attitudes toward education was an important advantage to Catholic conversion, equally important was the church’s tolerance toward race mixing within a caste-based social structure that allowed greater social and educational privileges to mixed-race children of the higher classes.

Initially, Protestant conversion lagged behind. Here, in many ways, the Protestants themselves imposed obstacles to their own efforts.  Quakers, for example, were a particular challenge to pro-slavery English settlers. Unlike the Puritans, Quakers believed all humanity to be equal before the laws of God and man, and in 1688 registered the first protest against slavery by Protestants in America. Founder George Fox saw religious training of slaves as a preparation for emancipation and addressed the issue in England in 1672.  In retaliation, a law was passed that same year in the pro-slavery Virginia colony prohibiting all people of color—slaves and non-slaves—from attending Quaker meetings. In 1679, another law was passed requiring all school personnel to pledge an oath of allegiance to the colony that included a declaration of racial supremacy. The Quakers refused to sign, citing the oath was in direct opposition to Quaker doctrine, after which a law was passed effectively excluding Quaker schools from the Virginia communities. While colonialists in North Carolina attempted to follow suit, the outcome was less successful. One reason was that in North Carolina, Quakers, who largely consisted of the second category, set up schools in remote areas, teaching the fundamentals of an English education to settlers, servants, and slaves as early as 1731.

Another unlikely obstacle to the Protestant conversion was the Church of England, which issued an edict in 1701 by the Bishop of London that proclaimed no Christian could be a slave. Shortly thereafter, under pressure from pro-slavery activists, the edict was amended with a formal declaration  stating that, in the case of Africans, conversion did not equal manumission. Although it did not do so directly, the edict advocated education by easing restrictions on missionaries in the New World who represented the Church of England. This was an attempt to appease appeals by powerful clergymen in London in favor or sending schoolmasters, as well as missionaries, to convert slaves and Native Americans in the colonies. Eventually, their appeals culminated in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which required the instruction of biblical texts, Church catechism, and the practice of grace before meals, along with morning and evening prayers. For the next ten years, the Church of England appointed parish councils and administrative councils to each settled community in the colonies.  The competition for conversion shifted in 1711, when an Act of Parliament declared the Established Church of England to be the official church of the colonies. The Act included a declaration that slaves could be converted by Protestant missionaries other than those serving the Church of England,  including Quakers, as long as their beliefs did not deny the doctrine of the Trinity. It also included a pardon to teachers, including Quakers, and to all Protestant ministers, thereby legitimizing all previous Protestant conversions.

While the Act of Parliament managed to protect Protestantism from the growing dominance of Catholic conversion, the consequences presented conflict in the Southern colonies. While Southern clergymen, aware of their obligation to teach Christian religion, did hold Sabbath Schools where slave children learned to read the Bible, they were equally aware of their duty as Southerners to abide by the legal bounds of slavery. The resolution was the strategy of “word instruction,”a system of training oral instruction acceptable to both missionaries and slave owners. Organized by Bishop William Capers , word instruction was oral instruction in Christian truth and differed from traditional instruction, which taught slaves to read directly from the Bible.Also known as religion without letters, word instruction taught slaves to memorize the fundamentals of Christian principles rather than read them directly from the Bible. The argument was that, through oral instruction, converts learned what they needed to know to be good Christians, and what they needed to know to be good Christians was to be good slaves and good servants.

Not all slave holders accepted the idea of religion without letters. Some considered any form of instruction to be dangerous. Their argument was that any education led to a desire for improvement, which, in turn, led to ambition, making slaves not only unfit for service, but likely to agitate for freedom.  This group was opposed by slave owners comprising the first category, masters who considered slavery to be an investment and supported whatever form of instruction that increased profitability. For these slaveholders, education was part of their divine right to deal with property. Many in this camp claimed that anti-education laws should protect slaves from abolitionists, not from slaveholders who used education for reward and profit. This was a particular argument used by owners of large plantations, who needed slaves to be trained for particular tasks. Preachers who found oral instruction inadequate to teach Scripture also returned to instruction using religion with letters (reading) and the children of slaveholders continued to teach their favorite slave-companions. Moreover, mandates for word instructions were difficult to enforce and even when charged, white instructors seldom received more than a reprimand.

Nevertheless, for the most part, public opinion throughout the South held that an enlightened slave was unfit for service and that an educated slave was potentially dangerous. The opinion grew even stronger when it was learned that Toussaint L’Overture, leader of the successful rebellion in Haiti was an educated slave, as was Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner, who began his education at Sabbath School. When it was learned that educated blacks were encouraging resistance among slaves throughout the Southern colonies, free people of color were either prohibited from communicating with slaves or driven out the colonies altogether. Slaves, once considered valuable because of their ability to read and write, were now considered seditious, and masters with slaves who could perform tasks such as bookkeeping were mandated by law to discontinue the practice. Eventually, blacks and mulattoes, whether slaves or free, were forbidden to assemble for any reason, religious or social, unless supervised by “acceptable” white men.

As Cater notes, with the invention of the cotton gin, everything changed. By 1835, slavery had been transformed from a patriarchal institution to an economic institution and the idea of educating people of color for any reason was abandoned altogether.  But despite deep measures to restrict education, the desire to learn was pervasive throughout the slave communities. Of equal importance was the determination and the broad range of strategies of both slaves and free people of color alike, strategies that went beyond color and beyond caste. “Each one, teach one” became the slaves’ strategy for instruction. Children of slave holders continued to teach their “pet” slave companions, sympathetic whites continued to teach slaves they felt worthy of learning, and slaves continued to teach other slaves whatever they could learn. One of the most inspiring chapters in Carter’s text is “Learning in Spite of Opposition,” where, in Carter’s words, “The instances of Negroes struggling to obtain an education read like the beautiful romances of a people in a heroic age.”  One such hero was Ann Marie Sampson, who was willing to risk jail, torture, or being sold into slavery for the sake of education.


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Charles Chesnutt in the Classroom by Adrienne Johnson Gosselin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.