This brief overview of literacy among slaves of Alabama appears in the chapter titled History of Public Education in Alabama in the volume History of Clarke County by John Simpson Graham in our American County Histories: Southeastern States.
The Instruction of Slaves
Historical writers have given little or no concern to negro education in slave times. Presumably this want of concern has been due to the assumption that there was no such thing as the instruction of slaves, but as a matter of fact there was (see See C. G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861).
No inconsiderable number of negroes in Alabama came out of slavery with the ability to read and write. At least three causes operated to give to a small proportion of the slave population a modicum of text-book instruction. These were:
(1) the clandestine efforts of anti-slavery enthusiasts;
(2) the profits accruing to some masters by reason of the ability of their slaves to read, write, and otherwise transact business; and
(3) the kindness of young masters and mistresses in instructing their servants.
There was, moreover, a more or less general feeling that negroes might be permitted to learn to read their Bibles, and what is known as “vocational training” was widespread. But the fear of insurrectionary influence and the spread of abolitionist propaganda led to the legal regulation of slave assemblies and to the creation of the patrol system; and, as the abolitionists became more insistent, the education of slaves, in the case of individuals as well as in assemblies, was prohibited by law.
In making this prohibition, Alabama was neither first nor last among the slave states, but occupied a middle ground; its law was enacted in 1832. These laws generally had the effect of preventing organized effort to instruct the slaves, so that such literacy as negroes possessed when emancipated was of the sort that young masters and mistresses had chosen to give, in disregard of the law, to their favorite servants.