Literacy Under Slavery: “To Taste the Forbidden Fruit”

Last month we learned about our humble beginnings. We saw how the first documented adult school–the Bristol Adult School–became established in Bristol, England in 1812. We were also introduced to William Smith: “A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual,” who “relinquished three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” to rent rooms “for the reception and instruction of the illiterate poor.”

This month we cross the ocean to meet perhaps the bravest of all the heroes and heroines of this year’s blog series—Reverend William Richardson. With the civil war raging throughout the southern states, Richardson, his wife and colleagues, established a school for the freed slaves, then called “Freedmen,” in Port Royal South Carolina. This was actually an  “experiment” by Northerners to see if freed slaves were actually capable of learning (Rachal, 1986).

Here is What Happened

On November 7, 1861, the gunships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron of the Union Army sailed into South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound all prepared for action. What they found instead were some 10,000 freed slaves; most, if not all, were illiterate. They also saw that the plantation owners, Confederate soldiers and most residents had fled.

Enslaved fugitives escaping Virginia, 1862

Enslaved fugitives escaping Virginia, 1862

How did the Blockading Squadron know  the Freedmen were illiterate? Because it was extremely dangerous for slaves to learn to read or write. Here’s a little known fact about U.S. adult education history. In 1740, South Carolina became the first state to pass a law making it illegal to teach slaves to write. In 1834, it also became illegal to teach slaves to read. Breaking these Draconian laws in South Carolina, or the even harsher “plantation laws” that spread across most southern states, had very serious consequences for both teacher and learner. If a slave was caught learning to read, punishments could include having one’s (writing) fingers chopped off, whippings, beatings, being branded with hot irons, or even being hanged (Quigley, 1997, 2006). The same could be inflicted on the teacher. Nevertheless, many slaves did learn to read and write and many chose to help them. Here is a forgotten chapter of our adult literacy history that involves acts of bravery unimaginable today (DeBoer, 1995; Rachal, 1989).

The Union Navy Changes History 

The naval commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, General Thomas Sherman (not William Tecumsah Sherman) could have simply sailed on. Instead, he decided it was an essential part of the war of liberation “to educate the freed slaves” (Stubblefield & Keane, 1994, pp. 130-131). Sherman “recommended that Washington dispatch superintendents and instructors” (pp. 130-131). This decision fostered an “experiment.” Most Southerners and many Northerners were far from convinced that freed slaves were even capable of learning (DeBoer, 1955), thus, the project to follow was the “Port Royal Experiment.” The idea of trying to teach freed slaves to read and write was not only audacious but revolutionary in itself.

The call for help was met by Rev. William T. Richardson and members of the Gideonite religion who sailed from New York City on March 3, 1862. They came under the auspices of the New York Freedmen’s Relief Organization. They were missionaries, as were so many in the history of early literacy. Interestingly, such efforts by missionaries were lauded by many Black leaders of the time. Black leader, Booker T. Washington wrote: “Whenever it is written—and I hope it will be—the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country” (cited in DeBoer, 1955, Preface). W.E.B. DuBois, a major intellectual Black leader in the U.S. agreed. He wrote, “the teachers came…not to keep Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the places of defilement where slavery had sealed them” (cited in DeBoer, 1955, Preface).

To Taste the Forbidden Fruit

New school buildings rose up. Hundreds of freed slaves came forward. The women came, often carrying their children on their hip or on their backs, as they walked for miles along dusty roads (Billington, 1953; Rachal, 1986). Rev. Richardson combined “religious and teaching instruction” in the school with the ever-present Bible close at hand (Rachal, 1986, p.16). Deprived of the ability to read for generations, the Freedmen came with “an instinctive sense of literacy’s value” (Rachal, p. 16). They were drawn, as Swint (1967) states, by, “that peculiar attraction which is characteristic of all forbidden fruit” (p. 72). They saw with their own eyes that the Bible did not condemned them as an “inferior race,” as they had long been told. They learned that the civil war was in fact fought to ensure their rights as citizens. Reading was not just a skill, it was life changing.

 Penn School survived in later years

Penn School survived in later years

Richardson’s wife joined him and worked by his side. But, tragically, Richardson ultimately worked himself to death. He suffered countless illnesses due to the damp, warm climate and the unhygienic conditions that he was exposed to. According to Rachal (1986), he worked endlessly to not only build the school but was tireless in writing to his superiors in New York and the wider public, “usually . . . by candlelight by screen less windows deep into the evening” (Rachal, p. 15). He was not only documenting the staggering frustrations he faced as he pleaded for more resources from his sponsors, but he was trying to tell a highly skeptical reading audience that the Freedmen—men and women alike—learned well and quickly. As Rachal (1986) points out, “in that context, Richardson’s conclusion [on intelligence and ability] was ahead of its time” (p. 19).

As an aside, I saw microfilm copies of some of Richardson’s letters stored in the archives at Tulane University in New Orleans. I saw copies of wrinkled old pages with spots on some pages that looked to me, at least, to be either drops of dried sweat or dried tears.

The “Slaveocracy” Backlash Begins

However, during the oppressive reconstruction that followed the civil war, violence by the Southern “slaveocracy” escalated.  In 1865, Francis Cardazo, Richardson’s replacement, reported how the local Whites were filled with “hate and revenge toward the colored people.” He wrote, “one thing especially provokes them . . . that is, our schools… [They wish] to shut them up rather than see the colored people educated” (October 21, 1865, cited in Rachal, 1986). As historian W. J. Cash later wrote, lynchings that “were unthinkable when Blacks were valuable property, occurred with grisly regularity” after reconstruction began (cited in Rachal, p. 20).

The Port Royal school was ultimately replaced by the Penn School and a rather romanticized rendition is shown in this instalment. But the influence of this “experiment” was to be felt across America and by leaders of adult education for well over a century, including Jane Addams of the Settlement House movement for immigrants whom we will meet later in this series (Quigley, 1997).

So Many Forgotten Heroes

This under-researched chapter of literacy and slavery in our history was filled with heroic figures. Imagine, for instance, the bravery of Miss Wells—a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoake College—who “followed the army before peace was declared into one of the bitterest and most conservative parts of the South” (cited in DeBoer, 1995, p. 119). She opened her school in Athens, Alabama. Shortly thereafter: “The Ku Klux Klan lined up around her school, fired volleys of shot . . .through her windows on either side of the chair on which she was sitting” (cited in deBoer, p. 119). Threats continued until “the school was burned down over her head” (p. 119). The American Missionary Association urged her to come home. Instead, Miss Wells “established a brick yard, set the negroes to making bricks [emphasis added] and under her direction they built the school house which served them for many years” (cited in deBoer, p. 119).

Veiled Racism and Relevance to Today

There are many points of relevance in this story; but, at least in my view, the most salient point is how deeply ingrained racism was. And, frankly, how enduring prejudice against those with low literacy skills still is today. In our December blog, you might remember how Hobley and Mercer were quoted concerning the raging controversy over whether or not to teach the illiterate adults learners to write.  As Hobley and Mercer noted, “While Bible-reading was everywhere encouraged,” to actually allow the lower classes to learn to write” would  undoubtedly “tempt the poor to commit forgery and crime!”  We also saw Dr. Thomas Pole arguing that teaching the illiterate to read would improve the moral character of the lower classes. Moreover, England, “will not then be so dependent on the provident members of society, as they now are” (p. 19, Verner, 1967). Imagine the racism behind the Port Royal Experiment. It was not just a school; it was an “experiment” to see if freed slaves could actually learn to read and write.

Reading these stories today, it is startling to see how adults with low literacy were so despised and feared, and how the heroes of both of these stories had to struggle against the overt racism and deep public prejudices of their day. But has public prejudice against those with lower literacy totally gone away? Not in my experience (Quigley, 1997).

Hal Beder (1991) has explored this hegemony of societal prejudice against those with lower literacy in Western society. As he notes: “While it is no longer socially acceptable to publicly denigrate Blacks, Hispanics, and welfare recipients, it is acceptable to denigrate them indirectly by denigrating illiterates” (p. 140). Here in Canada, we can see how a number of marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community, Aboriginals, and those with disabilities have slowly gained at least some voice in today’s public and policy discourse, but the estimated 107,000,000 adults with lower literacy in North America simply have not gained a voice  (Quigley, in press). We in the field of adult literacy have a unique, centuries-old, legacy of having to justify the need for our field with year-by-year program grant applications and endless efforts to see some rays of those “sunny ways” from our federal government.

As Ron Cervero has pointed out: “Learning needs should not be treated as deficiencies of the individual that can be treated and remedied. Rather, learning needs should be treated as an adult’s right to know” (Cervero, in press). Blog installments to come will indicate how we have clearly come closer to this objective though time, but we still have a long way to go.


Billington, R. A. (1953). Introduction. In R. A. Billington (Ed.), The Journal of Charlotte Forten (Rev. ed.), pp. 7-42. New York: W. W. Norton.

Cervero, R. M. (in press). Professionalization for what? Fulfilling the promise of adult and continuing education. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning.

DeBoer, C. M. (1995). His truth is marching on: African Americans who taught the freed men for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Quigley, B.A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B.A. (in press). Will Anything Be Different in the 21st Century? How 107 Million Adults and the Field of Adult Literacy Became so Marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning.

Rachal, J. R. (1986). Freedom’s crucible: William T. Richardson and the schooling of freed men. Adult Education Quarterly, 1(37), 14-22.

Stubblefield, H. W., & Keane, P. (1994). Adult education in the American experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swint, H. L. (1967). The Northern teacher in the South: 1862-1870. New York: Octagon  Press.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


Next Month: The Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

Next month we head to Kentucky and see how Cora Wilson Stewart (the “Little General”) established an adult school system in Rowan County, the poorest county in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century. When the moon was shining, adults were invited to come down from the hills and up from the “hollers” to learn to read and write. They sat in children’s desks in  the local school houses. The Moonlight Schools model swept the U.S.A. Stewart was invited to lead the first national “Literacy Crusade” in American history but is one more of our forgotten heroines.

Tune in next month.


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium this.


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