Anti-literacy laws in the United States

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Anti-literacy laws were in force in many slave states before and during the American Civil War, affecting slaves, freedmen, and in some cases all people of color.[1] These largely came into force following abolitionist David Walker's 1829 publication of Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which openly advocated rebellion,[2] and Nat Turner's slave rebellion of 1831. The Southern white public was already fearful because of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 and the Denmark Vesey planned revolt of 1822.[citation needed]

William M. Banks wrote, in Black Intellectuals:

"Literacy also threatened the control and surveillance network for slaves in the South. Concern about runaways prompted slaveholders to require passes for all slaves traveling unaccompanied off the plantation. Literate slaves, however, could forge the necessary papers and escape to the North (few white patrollers could read well enough to verify the documents). Many slaves who learned to write did indeed achieve freedom by this method. The wanted posters for runaways often mentioned whether the escapee could write."[3]

The United States is the only country known to have had anti-literacy laws.

State anti-literacy laws[edit]

Between 1819 and 1834 Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Virginia all passed anti-literacy laws.[4] South Carolina prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison, via an amendment to its 1739 Negro Act.[5]

A website titled "Fight Municipal Court Abuse ( includes the following in its list of significant anti-black laws:

  • 1819, Missouri: Prohibited assembling or teaching slaves to read or write
  • 1829, Georgia: Prohibited teaching blacks to read, punished by fine and imprisonment[6]
  • 1832, Alabama and Virginia: Prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read or write, punished by fines and floggings
  • 1833, Georgia: Prohibited blacks from working in reading or writing jobs (via an employment law), and prohibited teaching blacks, punished by fines and whippings (via an anti-literacy law)
  • 1847, Missouri: Prohibited teaching blacks to read or write[7]

A 19th-century Virginia law specified: "[E]very assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading or writing, or in the night time for any purpose, shall be an unlawful assembly. Any justice may issue his warrant to any office or other person, requiring him to enter any place where such assemblage may be, and seize any negro therein; and he, or any other justice, may order such negro to be punished with stripes."[8]

In North Carolina, black people who disobeyed the law were sentenced to whipping while whites received a fine and/or jail time.[9]

Restrictions on the education of black students were not limited to the South. While teaching blacks in the North was not illegal, many Northern states, counties, and cities barred black students from public schools. What few schools there were for black students were projects funded by donations from Quakers and other philanthropists. Tbe attempt in 1831 to open a college for black students in New Haven was met with such overwhelming local resistance that the project was almost immediately abandoned (see Simeon Jocelyn). Private schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut that attempted to educate black and white students together were destroyed by mobs (see Noyes Academy and Canterbury Female Boarding School).


Educators in the South found ways to both circumvent and challenge the law. John Berry Meachum, for example, moved his school out of St. Louis, Missouri when that state passed an anti-literacy law in 1847, and re-established it as the Floating Freedom School on a steamship on the Mississippi River, which was beyond the reach of Missouri state law.[10] After she was arrested, tried, and served a month in prison for educating free black children in Norfolk, Virginia, Margaret Crittendon Douglas wrote a book on her experiences, which helped draw national attention to the anti-literacy laws.[11]

...Some slaveholders tolerated slave literacy. Others ignored the statutes for economic reasons, realizing that literate slaves could handle record-keeping and business transactions, and thus increase the profits and leisure time of the planter class. The prohibitions were also ignored by pious masters who wanted their slaves to read the Bible. There are also numerous accounts of planter children enjoying "playing school" and teaching their slave playmates the rudiments of literacy."[3]


  1. ^ "Illegal to Teach Slaves to Read and Write". Harper's Weekly. June 21, 1862.
  2. ^ Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, Oxford University Press, USA, Apr 6, 2006, p. 445
  3. ^ a b Banks, William M. (1996). Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. W. W. Norton.
  4. ^ Christine Pawley, Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America, Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2010
  5. ^ "Slave Codes (20 November 2016)". Boundless U.S. History. Boundless U.S. History. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  6. ^ Angulo, A. J. (2016). Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad. Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press. pp. 13–33. ISBN 1-4214-1932-7.
  7. ^ "Truth of how Slavery Started the Black Slave Trade and Racism". Fight Municipal Court Abuse. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  8. ^ "Offences against public policy," Title 54, Chapter 198; "Assembling of negroes. Trading by free negroes," Section 31; in The Code of Virginia. Richmond: William F. Ritchie. 1849. p. 747. Retrieved 10 February 2017.
  9. ^ North Carolina Digital History,
  10. ^ Robert W.Tabscott John Berry Meachum Defied The Law to Educate Blacks, St. Louis Beacon, August 25, 2009
  11. ^ Douglass, Margaret, Educational Laws of Virginia: The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglass, a Southern Woman Who Was Imprisoned for One Month in the Common Jail of Norfolk, John P. Jewett and Co., 1854