African American Education: Virginia

Literacy was a distinct advantage in the eighteenth-century British world, but the oral culture of the colonial period encompassed everyone from resourceful slaves to classically educated gentlemen. Enslaved children learned from their parents and other adults essential skills for ensuring their own survival in a society that afforded them little protection.

No law in colonial Virginia prohibited enslaved persons and free blacks learning to read and write. Some slave owners found it necessary to have a trusted slave who could read commercial documents, for example, and do simple arithmetic. Most slave holders balked at the idea, however, and its corollary, instruction in Christianity. They feared that literacy could make the difference between a successful or failed escape. And sometimes it did.

Occasionally resources were set aside through bequests or estate settlements to pay for lessons for a particular slave child. For instance, in October 1754, Elizabeth Wyatt billed Reverend William Dawson's estate £1.6 for schooling his slave Jinny for one year. The few slaves and free blacks apprenticed to Virginia artisans, like their white counterparts, had to be taught basic spelling and reading. No doubt master tradesmen ignored this provision unless it was essential to performing the work. Runaway advertisements in Virginia newspapers in the 1760s and 1770s report slaves' ability to forge their own passes or familiarity with someone who could do it for them.

Religious training brought a measure of formal instruction to some African Americans. The Reverend James Blair, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg from 1710 to 1743, advocated Christian education for "Negro & Indian Children." He reported to the Bishop of London in the late 1720s that he encouraged "the baptizing & catechizing of such of them as understand English, and exhort their Masters to bring them to Church and baptize infant slaves." The Rev. William LeNeve of nearby James City Parish and the Rev. Francis Fontaine, rector of Yorkhampton Parish (Yorktown), reported similarly on teaching Anglican catechism to enslaved persons in their parishes including regular classes on Saturday afternoons for the purpose. These ministers do not say that they taught black people to read the Bible in the course of this instruction but they may have.

In 1743, Virginia Commissary (senior church official in the colony) William Dawson wrote to England for a copy of school rules "which, with some little Alteration, will suit a Negro School in our Metropolis, when we shall have the Pleasure of seeing One established." Whether Dawson envisioned occasional catechism classes for slaves or more general instruction is unclear, but he later wrote that he visited three of these schools in Bruton Parish. More significant for its longevity, continuity, and scope was the school for black children in Williamsburg funded by the Associates of Dr. Bray, a philanthropic organization allied with the Anglican Church in England, dedicated to improving conditions within slavery. Open from 1760 to 1774, the school ran at capacity (25-30 students at a time) for the whole period. The schoolmistress was Mrs. Anne Wager, formerly tutor to the Burwell children at Carter's Grove and later to a group of white children in Williamsburg. She used the Bible and Anglican religious materials to teach her pupils to spell, read, and speak properly as she communicated Christian doctrine according to Anglican tenets. The list of materials sent from England included instructional materials designed for Indians, simple English primers, and catechisms.

A broad cross-section of slave owners in Williamsburg and a few free black parents in the vicinity sent their children to the school between 1760 and 1774. While it is likely that Wager reinforced her pupils' subservient status with scriptural passages such as "Servants obey your masters" and slave owners often found work at home for the children before they could get the intended three years' instruction, the fact remains that Wager taught a significant number of black children in Bruton Parish and Williamsburg to "mind their Stops & . . . to pronounce & read distinctly." The Rev. Jonathan Boucher was not able to establish a Bray school in King George County, Virginia, but he accepted books and other printed matter from the Associates. Boucher "emply'd a very sensible, well-dispos'd negro belonging to a Gentleman who lives about a Mile from Me, to endeavour at instructing his poor fellow Slaves in Reading and some of the first Principles of Religion." He told the Associates that it might surprise them if he were "to relate to You some of the Conversations I have had with Negros to whom I had given Books."

When a nineteenth-century Baptist historian reported in 1810 that a church book was kept by early members of the black Baptist church founded in Williamsburg in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, it was further confirmation of a subculture of literate slaves in the area, but schooling for African Americans in Virginia was the exception not the rule from colonial times through the Civil War. What toleration there had been for slave literacy evaporated in the early nineteenth century.

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