A Gaping Contrast: African American Literacy in the Antebellum North and South

The 19th century was a time of great disparity and change in educational access, particularly for African Americans. At the start of the century, only those who could afford education were able to obtain it. Gradually, as the call for a literate population began to increase, public schooling was made more available.  However, in the decades leading up to the Civil War African Americans in the North and the South had vastly different experiences in their ability to access education and their educational rights.


In the early 19th century education was made available to the white public across much of the North, and a few schools for blacks, such as the New York African Free School were established as early as the 1787. An interactive timeline of events in the early 19th century placing the Free School into context for African Americans in New York is available here:  https://www.nyhistory.org/web/africanfreeschool/timeline/index.html

Woodson, Carter Godwin , The Negro in our history. (published [c1927]), Washington, D.C., The Associated Publishers, Inc. [c1927] Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / General Research and Reference Division ID# 1219240

As the population of cities grew rapidly, industrialists supported public schooling as a means to gain a tractable workforce. However, Northern schools were segregated and equality of instruction faced significant obstacles. African American schools were not financially or publicly well supported, and white leadership did little to ensure teachers had adequate materials or facilities with which to work.

The Quakers were early and consistent supporters of education programs for everyone, including blacks, and promoted spreading basic reading and writing skills among blacks in the North. Black schools in Boston were so popular that it is estimated that fewer than eight percent of African Americans in the city were illiterate by 1860. In Philadelphia, Quaker education for blacks was established early on by Anthony Benezet, who also founded the first public girl’s school on the continent. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society opened a school in 1813 in Clarkson Hall, which was built for the purpose of educating 130 students.

Floor plan of Clarkson Hall, a school run by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the site of its headquarters for many years.

In 1818 Philadelphia leadership began to make free public education available to whites, and this right was extended to schooling for African American pupils in 1822. In 1837, Richard Humphreys, a wealthy Quaker, gave a donation to establish a training school for blacks to become teachers.

Institute for Colored Youth. Photo provided by Philadelphia Department of Archives

Fanny Coppin. In 1865, she began teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth.

By 1840, this school became the Institute for Colored Youth and was located at 9th and Bainbridge Streets. This organization would later grow to become Cheyney State Teachers College in 1913.  The ICY was quite progressive for its time and attracted educated African Americans from across the country to teach there, including Fannie Coppin, who became the first black female principal in 1869.


Fanny had been educated at Oberlin College, in Ohio, which was the first college to open its doors to African American men and all women during the 1830’s. In addition to providing higher education to blacks, Oberlin was committed to the abolitionist movement and participated in the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves heading for Canada.






By contrast, literacy rates for blacks in the South were markedly lower, because reliable access to education was virtually non-existent. By the end of the 1830’s most Southern states has passed laws banning teaching reading and writing to African Americans. These laws were enacted to exert further control over the large slave population and prolong the dependency of slaves on their masters. They generally included severe penalties, but the laws varied in specificity. The North Carolina law, passed in 1830, made an exception that allowed slaves to learn counting, while the 1833 law in Alabama forbade the mere gathering of more than five black men. Earlier state laws were less specific, such as these:

Excerpt from South Carolina Act of 1740
Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.

Excerpt from Virginia Revised Code of 1819
That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.

-from Acts against the education of slaves South Carolina, 1740 and Virginia, 1819.  Cited in William Goodell. The American Slave Code In Theory and Practice. pt 2. (New York: American & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1853).

Despite such heavy penalties, an estimated 400,000 African Americans held at least a basic level of literacy in 1865. This represented about 10% of the black population in the South. The ability to read was garnered through a variety of means. Many slaves, like Booker T. Washington, were educated through school sessions taught covertly at night or at a master’s whims or needs. A timeline of major events, putting not only the southern anti-literacy laws into context but also contrasting them with the publication of slave narratives and with laws supporting the growing abolition movement in the North is available here: http://www.blackpast.org/timelines/african-american-history-timeline-1800-1900.

“The freedman’s bureau” by Currier & Ives, 1868. Courtesy of the Library of Congress


After emancipation, the educational efforts for African Americans in the South made rapid and significant gains. During reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau was set up to promote, among other things, literacy among newly freed African Americans. These schools were embraced with enthusiasm, but resources were pressed. Northern and Midwestern missionaries also flooded the south to help set up new schools, and consequently initial literacy rates rose rapidly during the first decade of reconstruction.

During the 1860’s, literacy was critical to recovery from a life of subjugation for African Americans. Slave families were often forcibly separated from each other, and one avenue to reunite with (or at least learn of) a loved one’s fate was to post information advertisements in newspapers. The Christian Recorder, a Philadelphia based newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was a major resource for the distribution of such ads throughout the 1860s. A majority of the ads were posted from people with addresses located in the North who were seeking information about relatives last seen in the South. To circumvent the widespread problem of illiteracy, it was not unusual for the ads to specifically request Southern ministers to read the ad in their congregations.

Additional Resources:


The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Long Path to Higher Education for African Americans by Troy Duster, published in NEA Higher Education Journal, Fall 2009

New York Historical Society

Slavery and the Making of America from PBS

The Valley of the Shadow


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