The Fugitive Slave as a Folk Hero in Black Education

Harvard University Press
5 min readFeb 27, 2023

Jarvis R. Givens chronicles the subversive tradition of Black education in America in his award-winning book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching. This excerpt unpacks the complicated narrative of the fugitive slave and its place in both Black collective memory and curricula.

The theory of fugitive pedagogy indexes the recurring figure of the fugitive slave as a folk hero in the writings and recollections of black teachers and students. The absconded slave, akin to the literate slave — because they were often one and the same — emerged as an archetype who symbolized black people’s political relationship to the modern world and its technologies of schooling. As a cultural symbol, this folk hero represented ideas and values shared by black educators, which also had implications for embodied form in black school life; how teachers and students expressed these values in practical ways.

Narratives of fugitive slaves took on typical characteristics of the folk hero genre. Individual narratives of escape and rebellion represented “the feat,” where black flight from enslavement represented a deed that exceeded ordinary human capacities. The fugitive slave’s continued and collective acts of escape, and in some cases their efforts to lead others to freedom, represented a more expansive “quest.” The quest represented “a prolonged endeavor toward a high goal, usually involving a series of feats, contests, and tests, before final attainment.” In that the folk hero themselves became metonymic of the grand quest, it follows that the archetype of the fugitive slave functioned as a symbol for the pursuit of black freedom. This ultimate quest transcended any individual act or feat, though it put them all into perspective.

Black schools inherited this folk hero through the oral traditions of those who lived during slavery, when a black countercurriculum had already begun to form. The historian Charles H. Wesley referred to this intellectual phenomenon from the nineteenth century as the emergence of a “new heroic tradition,” whereby black fugitives and rebels who were deemed monsters or erased in the white national memory became elevated as heroes in black curricular imaginations. “Slavery . . . produced heroic figures who have long occupied an important place in Negro thought,” the historian Lawrence Levine explained. “The concept of Negro History was not invented by modern educators. Black men and women dwelt upon their past and filled their lore with stories of slaves who, regardless of their condition, retained a sense of dignity and group pride.” This knowledge was passed on to those who had never seen the days of slavery, and the stories continued to hold meaning. Despite temporal distance, Levine continued, many black Americans “may be said to have lived ‘pretty close to slavery’ in that they kept slave memories and traditions alive in their stories, their anecdotes, their reminiscences.” The stories of fugitive slaves held a more distant meaning after Emancipation, yet their political relevance remained prominent.

The fugitive slave became inscribed in the collective memory of black Americans. The nineteenth-century historian George Washington Williams observed the omission of figures like Nat Turner in traditional school books and the dominant American public memory, yet Turner’s story persisted. While “no stone marks the resting-place of this martyr to freedom . . . he has a prouder and more durable monument than ever erected of stone or brass,” Williams proclaimed. “The image of Nat Turner is carved on the fleshly tablets of four million hearts. His history has been kept from the Colored people at the South, but the women have handed the tradition to their children, and the ‘Prophet Nat’ is still marching on.” Turner had no proper burial, and the American national culture dishonored him, yet his story was held close and commemorated in the lives of black people, carved in the hearts of black children and passed on by those that came before them.

Black teachers played an important role in passing on this inheritance, beyond oral traditions. The fugitive slave — in myth and fact — functioned as a curricular object, emerging as a concrete focus of study. Accompanying this symbol was the demand for fugitive modes of study. In 1890, black Americans in St. Louis renamed a school after Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the slave insurrectionist turned governor-general of Haiti, after petitioning the white school board to rename their institutions after blacks who had achieved great things. Another school was named for Toussaint L’Ouverture. Black community leaders offered a defanged explanation for their selections, thus concealing their true motivations. In the school board records, Dessalines is simply listed as “a soldier.” Local whites mocked this choice of name in the newspaper, noting that black people would likely mispronounce the names of these foreign military figures.

Every textbook written by black schoolteachers between the late nineteenth century and Woodson’s first textbook in 1922 included expansive coverage of maroons, fugitive slaves, and slave insurrections. The principal Edward Johnson of North Carolina asserted that Nat Turner “was, undoubtedly, a wonderful character,” in his 1890 textbook, where he outlined details about Turner’s life and the insurrection he led. Leila Pendleton, a schoolteacher in Washington, DC, noted to her student readers that Turner was “known to the Negroes for miles and miles around as that of a leader and prophet.” His mother taught him that he was destined to be “a ‘Moses’ for his people.” Like his predecessors, John Cromwell, a school principal and member of the American Negro Academy, emphasized black people’s reverence for Turner in his 1914 textbook. Cromwell also highlighted that “fifty-five white men were killed but not a single Negro was slain during the attack.” Black teachers presented the story of Turner running away and leading an insurrection as part of a protracted narrative of resistance and slave uprisings stretching back before the American Revolution. Fugitivity manifested as a through line in black America’s social and political history. The characters in these narratives were leaders to whom students could look for inspiration and purpose.