African-American Education in the 19th Century

African-American Education in the 19th Century

African-Americans historically fought for the opportunity to become educated as they knew that this was was the key to their successful participation in American society.

“Of all the civil rights that the world has struggled and fought for, for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” These words, spoken by W.E.B. DuBois, characterize the plight of African-American people before, during and after slavery (Bolden 2009). The Slaves knew that knowledge held the keys to freedom and the desire to learn to read was paramount in their lives. Whipping, maiming and being sold away from their families were punishments for reading or teaching someone else to read yet they sought out education at tremendous risk to themselves and their families.

African-American Schools After the Civil War

African-Americans firmly believed that literacy was the tool and symbol of liberation and equality in White society and as a result many schools for African American flourished after the Civil War as African Americans quickly moved to educate themselves and their children. African-Americans funded, built and maintained almost 500 schools across the South even though they were illegal. Schools were established in every location, including abandoned plantations, sheds, slave markets, churches and farm houses.

Former slaves who had any ability at all to read or write were pressed into service teaching others everything that they knew and when that was not enough they made requests for other teachers to assist them. The American Missionary enthusiastically answered the call to educate and quickly found that the desire for learning was so great that classes were often filled past capacity with students volunteering to sit on the floor if need be.

Charlotte Forten, a Black teacher from the North was so impressed that compelled to write about her experiences and reported that she was impressed that a people, ”so crushed to the earth can have such a desire for knowledge (Burchard, 1995).”

Former Slaves Attest to the Importance of Education in their Lives

The slaves themselves, as evidenced through interviews and personal testimony, spoke of the importance education had in their lives. Booker T. Washington, the first Black person to serve as the president of a university, describes how his stepfather would only allow him to attend school if he went at night so that he could continue to support his family by working in the salt mines during the day (Wukovits 2008).

From slave narratives, Former slaves like, London R. Frebee, born in 1862, remark that there were three important dates in his life: the day he was born, the day he was free, and most importantly, the day he learned the alphabet. Georgia Telfair speaks fondly of attending school for the first time when she was eight years old in her special dress that was for school only.

Reading and Learning Offer Hope

The ability to read did in fact open up a whole new world for African-Americans who were former slaves and throughout the 1900’s they wrote countless books, poems and autobiographies that allowed them to communicate and enrich the world with their experiences. Not everyone was happy with the progress that was being made. Groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized both students and teachers by burning schools and beating students and teachers alike.

However, nothing could deter African-Americans from obtaining education for themselves and their children regardless of the dangers that they faced. Their efforts were successful and by the late 1860’s public schools for Black people became normal. Educators like Booker T. Washington even managed to open colleges for Black students to further their education, which were supported by Blacks and Whites. By 1880, the black literacy rate had increased from 5 percent to 30 percent, opening the doors to the future for all Americans (Williams, 2002).


  1. Wukovits, John F. Booker T. Washington and Education. Detroit Lucent Books, 2008
  2. Burchard, Pete. Charlotte Forten: A Black Teacher in the Civil War. Crown publishers, 1995
  3. Williams Andrea. Clothing Themselves in Intelligence. The Freed People, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871. The Journal of African American History, 2002