Norrece Jones on Butler Island and slave life
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Q: How dangerous was it for someone like Cooper London to teach slaves how to read?
A: For any slave to teach another slave how to to read -- first of all, to reveal that he or she could read was very dangerous. So that there's a dual danger: the, uh, penalty that one would have in severe lashing. There are cases of people being mutilated, once it was discovered that they were literate. It would be added punishment that someone not only had learned how to read, but was teaching others to do so.
Cooper London's credibility and the respect that he would have gathered from other slaves was not only based on his role as religious leader catering to their spiritual needs, but that he was himself putting himself at enormous risk by teaching them how to read. And also, his credibility was there about his understanding of the institution of slavery, by his refusal to tell Fanny Kemble how he learned how to read, and acknowledging it. Because he understood the danger of all white people. And I think this is something that generation after generation of slaves instilled -- that these were powerful, dangerous people [who] one should keep from -- [as] far away as possible.
Norrece T. Jones, Jr.
Associate Professor of History and African American Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University
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