Published by EH.NET (July 2005)

Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xiii + 304 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0 -8078-2920-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ilyana Kuziemko, Department of Economics, Harvard University.

Heather Williams’ Self-Taught: African-American Education in Slavery and Freedom is a balanced and well-researched volume on the early efforts of slaves and freedmen to educate themselves and their children. Despite the rather pointed title, Williams gives equal attention to the resourcefulness and dedication of southern blacks and the — at times patronizing but nonetheless essential — efforts of northern missionaries and social workers. Williams combines evidence from the official records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Union Army, and local governments with relevant case studies of particular schools and aid societies and the testimonies of individual students and teachers. She writes with a pleasing combination of authority and sensitivity; while the topic is certainly one of academic import and her analysis is appropriately rigorous, her style never obscures the humanity of her subjects.

The political power of literacy emerges as one of Williams’ main themes. While freedpeople may have been motivated by the pecuniary benefits of education, they were also keenly aware that learning to read meant engaging in a monumental political movement. Her account covers the activities of many diverse groups, each playing their own particular role in a collective struggle: the clandestine efforts of slaves who broke anti-literacy laws in their efforts to read; the determination of ex-slaves-turned-Union-soldiers to learn to read in army camps, and to pass on that knowledge once they returned home; the demands of Reconstruction-era black politicians that education be provided to their children, so that they could enjoy the political privileges associated with citizenship; and the labor of students and teachers in the face of not only inadequate housing and textbooks, but also physical attacks and death threats of local whites.

Williams begins with a short history of slaves’ attempts to educate themselves in the antebellum South. These efforts were legally forbidden and thus such “perpetrators” were literally risking life and limb in their determination to read. While anti-literacy laws are generally thought of as a reaction to Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, Williams finds examples of such statutes a century before the uprising. Slave-owners, it seems, were long wary that literacy would allow slaves to organize against their masters, and sought to limit their ability to communicate with one another.

Blacks themselves were well aware of the connection between political power and literacy. One of the first groups to be exposed to any type of education was former slaves who fought in the Union Army, a group that would naturally be tapped for leadership positions after the war. “African American soldiers were indeed anxious to become literate, as they stood to become leaders in their communities after the war,” Williams writes. White soldiers were impressed by the common sight of their black comrades “stand[ing] guard with book in hand” (p. 50).

Indeed, the first political leaders of post-war black communities prioritized education among the goals for which they would fight. One of the most interesting passages in the volume describes the political conventions held by former slaves in southern states. (Delegates met in order to draft demands to submit to all-white conventions charged with ratifying new, Reconstruction state constitutions. Most demands were ignored.) Writes Williams: “Illiteracy, they knew, would impede their ambition for full participation in this public, political sphere. Therefore, alongside traditionally defined civil rights of suffrage and jury service, freedpeople propounded a new right: the right to attend school” (p. 69). The idea of a right to basic education was years ahead of its time: North Carolina was the only southern state that had established public schools before the war. Williams convincingly traces the rise of the common-school movement in the South to the efforts of former slaves to provide education to their children, and the resulting envy inspired in poor whites.

Williams also goes to great lengths to undermine an iconic image promoted in many history texts: that of the kindly Yankee schoolmarm benevolently descending upon ignorant ex-slaves. Instead, she presents a more nuanced picture of the pool of teachers in black schools. While she stresses that trained, white teachers from the North were essential, she also highlights the role local blacks played. Using records kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau itself, she demonstrates that the majority of teachers in 1868 were black. Indeed, the estimated black share of teachers is probably a lower bound, as rural schools were both less likely to be counted in official records and more likely to be run by black teachers. Local, black teachers were especially essential in these areas, because the white “soldiers of light and love,” as northern evangelicals were often called, were more comfortable in the South’s cities. Indeed, well over half of northern-born teachers, clergymen and social workers living in the South in 1870 inhabited urban areas, whereas over ninety percent of blacks lived in rural areas.[1] This spatial mismatch between the supply and demand of teachers was usually corrected by local black teachers.

Many black teachers were themselves once students of the typical Yankee schoolmarms. The positive externalities of education is another key theme in Williams’ book; as soon as a student became literate, he became a teacher himself, either officially or unofficially, by passing on what he learned to his family and friends. “Education was not a commodity to be selfishly hoarded,” she writes. “Rather, many freedpeople considered it an asset that should be spread around the community” (p. 171). Thus, the full impact of the Freedmen’s Bureau would be underestimated by merely considering total enrollment. The positive spillovers of literacy from children to parents appear to be the most important route by which adults learned to read in the decade after the war. While more than ten percent of southern blacks between the ages of ten and fourteen attended school in 1870, fewer than one half of one percent of southern blacks over twenty-five did.[2] Williams is less clear on this point: at times she describes parents attending school alongside their children, yet in other places notes that parents rarely attended classes.

Another point on which Williams could have been clearer is the role of black churches in early education. Williams describes the efforts of northern groups such as the American Missionary Association — including very revealing accounts of the AMA’s battles with local freedmen over control of black schools — but gives far less attention to local religious institutions. She notes that “[m]any southern towns had at least two black churches, one Methodist and one Baptist, that were both transformed into classrooms for adults and children on weekdays; on Sundays they housed Sabbath schools” (p. 107). But this only begs the question of the antebellum status of these black churches: Were they independently run by free southern blacks? Were they established by whites in order to appease their slaves? Similarly, Williams writes that black ministers often emerged as community leaders in the early days of emancipation because they were more likely to be literate, but never describes what these men did before the war. Given the key role these religious institutions played, a short history of their development seems warranted.

While readers may occasionally be left wanting more detail about a particular aspect of this extraordinary struggle, these oversights detract little from Williams’ achievement. She addresses some of the most emotional themes in American history — racial divisions, the Civil War, education as a means of self-improvement — and as such must dispel cherished images of the period and replace them with more nuanced accounts. With her comprehensive research, sound analysis, and engaging style, Williams proves herself equal to the task.


1. Reviewer’s own calculation from the 1870 census.

2. Reviewer’s own calculation from the 1870 census. The census defined school attendance as having attended class at least one day during the previous twelve months.

Ilyana Kuziemko is a graduate student in the Department of Economics at Harvard University and author of “Human Capital Acquisition in Families: Do Immigrant Parents Learn from or Lean on their English Speaking Children?” Her publications include “Using Shocks to School Enrollment to Estimate the Effect of School Size on Student Achievement,” Economics of Education Review (forthcoming) and “An Empirical Analysis of Imprisoning Drug Offenders,” (with Steven Levitt) Journal of Public Economics (2004).