Library of Congress

Teachers

The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Born in Slavery

[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making: The Individual as Historical Decision-Maker

Slaves had much less control over their own lives than free people. This does not mean, however, that they were unable to make any important decisions. In fact, enslaved peoples were historical decision-makers, just as free people were. One of the decisions slaves made was whether and/or how to resist the power of the slaveholder. Learning to read was an example of such resistance.

The following appears in the Statute Laws of Georgia for 1845 concerning educating negroes, under Section II, Minor Offences. “Punishment for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read. If any slave, negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the direction of the court.”

From “Slavery by Ruby Lorraine Radford,” image 317

According to some interviewees, slaveholders punished slaves who learned to read even more harshly:

. . . ‘Ole Marse’ wuz sho hard about that. He said ‘Niggers’was made by de good Lord to work, and onct when my Uncle stole a book and was a trying to learn how to read and write, Marse Jasper had the white doctor take off my Uncle’s fo’ finger right down to de ‘fust jint’. Marster said he fixed dat darky as a sign fo de res uv ‘em!

From “Henry Nix – ex-slave interviewed,” image 144

Slaves who learned to read and write faced possible punishments, yet some chose learning. Make a T-chart showing the pros and cons of a slave’s learning to read and write. In similar circumstances, would you take the risk to learn to read and write? Explain your answer.

Top