How Freedom Schools in Florida Echo The Past
Freedom schools today are a lot like those created in response to anti-literacy laws.
Not every racist carries a noose. Some carry pens, pencils, and a briefcase. While we often discuss the violent manifestation of racist beliefs, many prefer to codify their bigoted worldview into laws and policies. For instance, between 1740 and 1834, states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina passed anti-literacy laws making it illegal for Black people to read and write or for others to teach them. This anti-literacy campaign sought to stifle any hope of progress for early Black Americans. The irony shouldn’t be lost on history students that White Southerners wanted to have their cake and eat it, too, endorsing a myth that Black people were intellectually inferior while depriving them of an opportunity to learn. To them, the image of a Black person with a book in hand was just as terrifying as someone holding a loaded gun, maybe even more so. A state militia could easily overcome a few men with guns, but an idea wouldn’t fall as easily.
“Masters are generally opposed to their negroes being educated,” editors wrote in the American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1836. The inhumanity of the chattel slavery system permitted not only physical torment but also made Black people the victims of constant psychological warfare. White enslavers did not want Black people to learn to read or have access to writing materials because then communication would, at long last, be possible. Forbidding Black Americans from speaking their original West African languages and keeping Black families separated was more than a way to turn a profit and pay off debt (here’s looking at you, Thomas Jefferson); it was also a way to prevent the enslaved from coordinating an escape, contacting abolitionists, or reconnecting with loved ones, to keep them in a constant state of chaos.
Enslavers felt they had to keep Black people uneducated to keep an upper hand. Jennie, an enslaved Black woman in Alabama, described her experience of hiding “Webster’s old blue back speller,” a dictionary to increase her vocabulary by candlelight. Her story shows that, despite the prevalence of anti-literacy laws, resistance was…