Black History Month – Nat Turner and Slave Literacy

Nat Turner

On August 21, 1831, enslaved Virginian Nat Turner led a bloody revolt, which changed the course of American history. The uprising in Southampton County led to the murder of an estimated 55 white people, the execution of about 55 Black people, and the beating of hundreds of Blacks by white mobs. 

Rebellion Produces Backlash

Although the rebellion only lasted about 24 hours, it triggered a renewed wave of oppressive legislation prohibiting enslaved people’s movement, assembly, and education.

At the same time, abolitionists saw an opening for the argument that the system of slavery was untenable. Lawmakers in Virginia argued over which path to take. A vote to free slaves through gradual emancipation gained support from the state’s leaders.

Ultimately Virginia and other southern states decided to keep slavery in place and tighten control of Blacks’ lives, including their literacy. In the antebellum South only about 10 % of enslaved people were literate. For many slave owners, even this rate was too high. Many Southerners believed that an educated slave was a dangerous person.

Biblical Justification Promoted

The 1831 revolt confirmed this view. Turner was a passionate preacher guided by spiritual visions. His ability to read the Bible allowed him to find stories of divine support for fights against injustice. Slave owners and their clergy controlled the Biblical account justifying slavery given to illiterate slaves. However, educated Blacks, like Turner, refuted this “sanitized” version which tried to legitimize slavery. Abolitionists Agitate Through Written Word.

African American literacy wasn’t just problematic to slave owners because of the potential for enlightening Biblical readings. “Anti-literacy laws were written in response to the rise of abolitionism in the north,” One of the most threatening abolitionists of the time was Black New Englander, David Walker. From 1829-1830, he distributed the Appeal, a pamphlet calling for uprisings to end slavery. Black sailors secretly brought Walker’s text to the South.

William Lloyd Garrison in 1833

Adding to such fears was William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator, which began publishing on January 1, 1831. Although it was edited by Garrison, who was described as a “radical” white abolitionist, it was primarily seen as a “Black newspaper,” because most of its readers were Blacks. Other readers were a “few radical whites who believed in antislavery and antiracism.” Southern enslavers saw this paper as another example of outsiders’ spreading agitation through the written word.

Literacy Threatens Justification of Slavery

Women Learning to Read

Black Americans’ literacy also threatened a major justification of slavery that Black people were “less than human, permanently illiterate and dumb.” Educated Blacks would disprove that characterization would undermine the logic of the system.

States fighting to hold on to slavery began tightening literacy laws in the early 1830s. In April 1831, Virginia declared that any meetings to teach free Blacks to read or write were illegal. New codes also outlawed teaching enslaved people.

Other southern states passed similarly strict anti-literacy laws around this time. In 1833, an Alabama law declared that “any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall upon conviction thereof of indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars.”

Despite the consequences, many enslaved people continued to learn to read. Numerous enslavers may have supported teaching Blacks to read. Many slaves performed “sophisticated work, including management of operations,” which required literacy. Barring Blacks from reading and writing was not a practical strategy for the slave owners. 

Sources: How Literacy Became a Powerful Weapon in the Fight to End Slavery, History, accessed February 8, 2023.

 Includes quotes from:

Patrick Breen, author of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt.
Clarence Lusane, a professor of political science at Howard University.
Sarah Roth, professor of history at Meredith College and creator of The Nat Turner Project. 

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", Preparing for Disunion, and Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy. He taught classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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