The Origin Story of Black Education

Harvard University Press
6 min readFeb 1, 2022


To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve chosen excerpts from our books that reflect varied aspects of the Black experience. Fittingly, our first excerpt comes from a book about historian and educator Carter Woodson, the founder of Black History Month. The Los Angeles Review of Books praised Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching by Jarvis R. Givens, saying it “would make Woodson, the ever-rigorous teacher, proud.”

Before Emancipation, the enslaved had to gain their education by “snatching learning in forbidden fields,” as Woodson characterized it. The black abolitionist and teacher Francis Ellen Watkins Harper explained that some tried “to steal a little from the book. And put words together, and learn by hook or crook.” Acquiring knowledge was a criminal act. As Frederick Douglass’s master put it, a slave who learned to read and write against the will of his master was tantamount to “running away with himself.” Stealing one’s self in this way meant that the literate slave was a fugitive slave: to secretly acquire literacy — for religious, practical, and intellectual ends (or, perhaps, especially as leisurely activity) — was akin to black flight from the sites of their enslavement.

Antiliteracy laws targeting black people were older than the United States itself. The first law of this kind was a slave code enacted in 1740 in reaction to the Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina. This code, which was meant to improve surveillance of the enslaved, listed writing among other illegal activities. Black people’s disallowance from the realm of educational opportunity anteceded the birth of the nation. This prohibition was absorbed into the dominant ideology of the nation, even as American common schools were established after American independence for the purpose of training a responsible citizenry; thus, conceptions of citizenship emerged as a metonym for whiteness. The antiblack sentiments that justified slavery justified excluding black Americans from citizenship and from schools — this antagonism was not an anomaly but was, in fact, a structural feature.

Antiliteracy laws and the intellectual surveillance that accompanied them left great marks on the politics of black education. They enforced the idea that blacks were outside the social contract of American society — inconceivable as fully human, citizen, or student. Many enslaved and free blacks subverted these legal mandates by acquiring literacy through fugitive tactics — leaving a mark of equal or greater consequence.While the overwhelming majority of blacks were illiterate under slavery, approximately 10 percent learned to read and/or write; suggesting that literate slaves were not so unusual as to be unknown to other blacks. These literate slaves were recognized as leaders with a practical skill set that benefitted their community.

How did the 10 percent of blacks who learned to read and write in the South before Emancipation gain the gift of literacy? As Woodson recounted time and again in his writings: “Negroes themselves…stole away to secret places at night to study.” The historical record documents black Americans climbing into holes in the ground under the cover of night, attending schools run by free blacks, “playing school” with white children, “stealin’ a meetin’” in the woods, and trading food for lessons, among other covert means. In her remarkable narrative of black education in the antebellum South and early in Emancipation, Heather Williams reveals that black people were self-taught and their own biggest advocates for education, in slavery and in freedom.

Frederick Douglass, raised in Maryland between the 1820s and 1830s, represents the best-known example of learning in secret. Left alone to look after the master’s house, he employed his own version of fugitive pedagogy. He spent his time “writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy book, copying what he had written.” Douglass wrote in the margins of the Webster Spelling Book, populating these in-between spaces with words he appropriated and mimicked, turning them toward his own semantic and political ends. Woodson’s nearby home state of Virginia passed laws prohibiting education for enslaved and free blacks as early as 1819. This legal precedent was reinforced through subsequent acts passed in Virginia leading up to Emancipation. In April 1831, for instance, an act was passed declaring “that all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any schoolhouse, church, meetinghouse or other place for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatever pretext, shall be deemed and considered as an unlawful assembly.” The law then authorized whippings “at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.” Such legislation, and the sentiments of antiliteracy ideology, became nearly universal in the South. When the Civil War began, black Americans challenged the prohibition of their mental elevation. Their efforts to learn expanded in formal and public ways; they initiated “native schools” in the Contraband Camps, which prefigured the Freedmen’s Bureau schools, and then the first public school system in the US South.

With the end of the Civil War came “jubilee,” as the formerly enslaved described the biblical time of freedom. No longer in bondage, black people across the South performed their first acts of freedom by occupying the classroom. Booker T. Washington recalled a “whole race trying to go to school,” and he noted: “Few were too young, and none were too old, to make the attempt to learn. As fast as any kind of teachers could be secured, not only were day-schools filled, but night schools as well.” The rush to the schoolhouse transcended any single location. Washington’s narrative described blacks’ quest for education throughout all the Southern states.

Once legally permitted to become educated in the postbellum South, black Americans continued to experience violence and other forms of opposition to their efforts. Yet they continued to resist in the best ways they knew how. Even as black education developed institutionally through the endeavors of blacks themselves and also in conjunction with white northern church denominations and philanthropists, black Americans nonetheless pursued critical parts of their educational lives in secret. As a class of political actors, black students and teachers emerged as persuasive advocates in fundraising for their respective institutions. And like black preachers, teachers (or, more expansively, Negroes “who had some learning”) were important leaders in black communities, not just because of their professional status but also as stokers and caretakers of the freedom dreams that helped initiate their escape from bondage. Black Americans shared an “equal rights” vision that remained unfulfilled. This vision fueled the emergence of black equal rights leagues and other organizational entities representative of black life during Reconstruction and the decades to follow. Black teachers’ associations reflected this collective drive on the part of a segment of leaders who signified the living history presented in Carter G. Woodson’s first classrooms.

Black people’s fugitive pedagogy lent itself to an origin story of black freedom. It was a central part of the general strike initiated by the absconded slaves who refused the political economic arrangement of slavery when they fled the plantations during the war. As a framework for learning, it contested ideas of black inferiority, while rejecting the superexploitation and ownership of black people as fungible laborers. The black schools and teachers after the war, by their very existence, symbolized the refutation of a knowledge realm that debased them, educational institutions that excluded them, and curricula that portrayed them as always already subjugated and “narratively condemned.” Fugitive pedagogy framed black educational life from the time of slavery through Jim Crow as a narrative plot that transcended the limited world in which black folks found themselves. It became more than a teaching method — more than utilitarian skills to be learned. Instead teaching and learning themselves continued to be “a means of escape,” as Woodson wrote. Education would guide blacks in pursuit of a new world and a new way of being; it was a total critique of the current order. Black Americans passed this narrative on as a panacea for social ills, and it heavily informed both politics and values after Emancipation. Carried over from slavery, fugitive pedagogy reflected the general story of black people’s shared past and present. In the postbellum era, black Americans continued to live their educational lives through the frame of this origin story. It continued to structure the relationship between education and the black political struggle more broadly. Woodson himself contributed to this long memory of education’s role in black America’s quest for freedom and justice.