The case of Mrs. Margaret Douglass
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In mid-century, at the same time that religious instruction was waning as the primary goal of education -- at least among reformers -- religious instruction of free and enslaved blacks in the South appeared to take on a renewed urgency. A number of slave rebellions, including one led by Nat Turner in 1831, which involved several free and literate blacks and which he claimed was divinely inspired, had underscored for whites the need to maintain tight control over the literacy of blacks and the tenor of their religious beliefs. Although every southern state had outlawed the teaching of reading and writing to enslaved blacks (and in some cases, free blacks as well), there is considerable evidence that some whites defied the law.
For example, in 1853, a Mrs. Margaret Douglass of Norfolk, Virginia, "being greatly interested in the religious and moral instruction of colored children and finding that the Sunday school where they were allowed to attend was not sufficient," began teaching free black children to read and write in her home. Mrs. Douglass pleaded ignorance of the law, having believed that it applied only to the teaching of slaves, and the mayor announced his intention to dismiss the charge; however, the Grand Jury chose to indict her. In her defense, she demonstrated that teaching free black children to read had been a common practice in the city's Sunday schools for years. The jury's penalty of one dollar was overturned by a Judge Baker, who imposed a month-long prison sentence, "as an example to all others in like cases."
In rendering judgement, Baker spoke at length about the importance of
religious instruction of blacks and its role in making slaves moral and
happy, but stressed that it should be kept separate from "intellectual"
instruction. He blamed this prohibition against black education on "abolition pamphlets and inflammatory documents" intended "to be distributed among our Southern negroes to induce them them to cut our throats."
Conditions of antebellum slavery
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