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Anti-literacy law


Anti-literacy law is legislation outlawing the teaching of literacy to a group or groups of people.

Anti-literacy laws were in force in many slave states before and during the American Civil War regarding slaves, freedmen, and in some cases all people of color. These largely came into force following abolitionist David Walker's 1829 publication of Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which openly advocated rebellion and Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831.

William M. Banks wrote in Black Intellectuals:

"Literacy also threatened the control and surveillance network for slaves in the South. Concern about runaways prompted slaveholders to require passes for all slaves traveling unaccompanied off the plantation. Literate slaves, however, could forge the necessary papers and escape to the North (few white patrollers could read well enough to verify the documents). Many slaves who learned to write did indeed achieve freedom by this method. The wanted posters for runaways often mentioned whether the escapee could write. ...some slaveholders tolerated slave literacy. Others ignored the statutes for economic reasons, realizing that literate slaves could handle record keeping and business transactions, and thus increase the profits and leisure time of the planter class. The prohibitions were also ignored by pious masters who wanted their slaves to read the Bible. And there are numerous accounts of planter children enjoying "playing school" and teaching their slave playmates the rudiments of literacy."

"With the exception of Maryland and Kentucky, every Southern state absolutely prohibited the education of slaves," Angela Davis wrote.

Between 1829 and 1834 Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and Virginia all passed anti-literacy laws. South Carolina prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison, via an amendment to its 1739 Negro Act.

A website titled "Fight Municipal Court Abuse (court.rchp.com) includes the following in its list of significant anti-black laws:

A 19th-century Virginia law specified: "[E]very assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading or writing, or in the night time for any purpose, shall be an unlawful assembly. Any justice may issue his warrant to any office or other person, requiring him to enter any place where such assemblage may be, and seize any negro therein; and he, or any other justice, may order such negro to be punished with stripes."

In North Carolina, black people who disobeyed the law were sentenced to whipping while whites received a fine and/or jail time.



  • 1819, Missouri: Prohibited assembling or teaching slaves to read or write
  • 1829, Georgia: Prohibited teaching blacks to read, punished by fine and imprisonment
  • 1832, Alabama and Virginia: Prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read or write, punished by fines and floggings
  • 1833, Georgia: Prohibited blacks from working in reading or writing jobs (via an employment law), and prohibited teaching blacks, punished by fines and whippings (via an anti-literacy law)
  • 1847, Missouri: Prohibited teaching blacks to read or write
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Wikipedia

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