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John Hope Franklin, Historian, on
Educating freedmen

John Hope Franklin In Nashville (and other parts of the South), black schools began to emerge. Talk about the meaning of literacy for black people at this period.

Franklin : One of the things that the ex-slaves wished for most of all was an education. They saw this as a means of making it out of the morass of ignorance and of opportunity and to move into opportunity. So that they would do everything they could to seek or to discover, to find ways of getting an education. It’s very interesting that the barracks that had been used by the Union troops were now used as schoolrooms in many instances. The desire for an education was something that was so great, so burning within the freedmen that they wanted this perhaps more than anything else. Certainly next to eking out a living and surviving, they wanted education, because they saw education as a means of moving up the economic and political ladder and becoming viable citizens in the new era.

One of the reasons why they wanted an education was that it had been withheld from them all during the antebellum years. There were laws against the teaching of slaves to read and to write. There were laws which applied to whites who would dare to teach the slaves to read and write. There were laws which forbade free blacks to associate in a free manner, with the slaves, for it was feared that they would not only cause the slaves to want to be free, but cause the slaves to want an education and that sort of thing. So that the things that were withheld from the slaves were the things which slaves now, in their new found freedom, would want. And education, of course, was a very important item on their list of wants.

And there were punishments if someone broke the law and was perceived to be able to read and write.

Franklin : There were laws that prevented persons from teaching slaves to read and to write. And these laws were strengthened after the Nat Turner insurrection. It was felt that not only was the Nat Turner insurrection a dangerous one (which occurred in 1831, in Virginia), but it was thought that it was through the vehicle of education that slaves would learn to read and to write, and would learn how to rebel or to conspire to rebel. And the penalties were severe–imprisonment for free blacks, whippings for slaves who dared to try to learn to read and right. And general restrictions on their activities, on their relationships with whites who were free and who were free to teach them, and blacks who might have been free and would like to teach them also. So these restrictions were severe. Punishments were severe. And everything was done to keep them apart and to keep them in ignorance.

And slaves were quite aware of all this. And they knew that if something was important and was being withheld from them, that something was what they should try to get. And education was one of these prizes that they sought.

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