Laws were passed in some states banning the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. It was thought that if a slave learnt to read he would become disillusioned with his life and seek to better himself, either by running away or revolting against his master. Many slaves, however, did learn to read and write. Letters exist written by slaves to their owners, sometimes reporting on conditions during the owner’s absence, asking for permission, or enquiring about purchasing freedom for themselves or their loved ones. The letters prove that not only were slaves learning to read and write, but that their owners were well aware of it.
But slaveholders were right about educated slaves wanting to better themselves. One example is Frederick Edward Bailey, better known as Frederick Douglass. Like most slave children, Frederick was taken from his mother at birth and fostered by an older slave woman. At about the age of five, Frederick was sent to live with his owner’s cousin, who taught him to read until her husband learnt of it and told her to stop.
For Douglass (pictured above), it was only the beginning. He used the rudimentary skills he had acquired to continue to teach himself to read, and would later go on to edit his own paper, the North Star. He became one of the most well-known orators of his day and spoke frequently of his life in slavery. With encouragement from fellow abolitionists, such as the newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass wrote several narratives about his time as a slave. Later, living in Washington DC, he came to know President Lincoln and advocated emancipation for slaves and equal pay for black soldiers who had joined the Union army. After the war, he held several government posts, including a position as a representative to Haiti.