Storm Bear

Black History: Prison for teaching slaves to read

Filed By Storm Bear | April 25, 2008 10:11 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: civil war, gay cartoons and comics, Margaret Douglass, slavery, webcomics


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SPECIAL REQUEST FOR TCD FANS: The San Francisco Chronicle is pondering the addition of new cartoons for their paper - a process that seems to be initiated by Darren Bell, creator of Candorville (one of my daily reads - highly recommended). You can read the Chronicle article here and please add your thoughts to the comments if you wish. If anything, put in a good word for Darren and Candorville.

I am submitting Town Called Dobson to the paper for their consideration. They seem to have given great weight to receiving 200 messages considering Candorville. I am asking TCD fans to try to surpass that amount. (I get more than that many hate mails a day, surely fans can do better?)

This is not a race between Darren and I, it is a hope that more progressive strips can be represented in the printed press of America.

So if you read the San Francisco Chronicle or live in the Bay Area (Google Analytics tell me there are a lot of you), please send your kind comments (or naked, straining outrage) to David Wiegand at his published addresses below. If you are a subscriber, cut out your mailing label and staple it to a TCD strip and include it in your letter.

candorcomment@sfchronicle.com

or

David Wiegand
Executive Datebook Editor
The San Francisco Chronicle
901 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103


Strip Essay:

In 1831, a bloody slave rebellion took place in Southampton County, Virginia. A slave named Nat Turner who was able to read and write and had "visions", led what became known as Nat Turner's Rebellion or the Southampton Insurrection. On a crusade with the goal of freeing himself and others, Turner and his followers killed approximately fifty men, women and children, but were eventually subdued by the white militia.


Nat Turner was hanged and skinned. His fellow freedom fighters were also hanged. In addition to killing Turner and his fellow insurrectionists, more than a hundred innocent slaves who had nothing to do with the rebellion were also murdered by the white militia. Across the South, harsh new laws were enacted in the aftermath of the 1831 Turner Rebellion to curtail the already limited rights of African Americans. Typical was the Virginia law against educating slaves, free blacks and children of whites and blacks. These laws were often defied by individuals, among whom was noted future Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.

In mid-century, at the same time that religious instruction was waning as the primary goal of education -- at least among reformers -- religious instruction of free and enslaved blacks in the South appeared to take on a renewed urgency. The slave rebellions, especially Nat Turner's, had underscored for whites the need to maintain tight control over the literacy of blacks and the tenor of their religious beliefs. Although every southern state had outlawed the teaching of reading and writing to enslaved blacks (and in some cases, free blacks as well), there is considerable evidence that some whites defied the law.

For example, in 1853, a Mrs. Margaret Douglass of Norfolk, Virginia, "being greatly interested in the religious and moral instruction of colored children and finding that the Sunday school where they were allowed to attend was not sufficient," began teaching free black children to read and write in her home. Mrs. Douglass pleaded ignorance of the law, having believed that it applied only to the teaching of slaves, and the mayor announced his intention to dismiss the charge; however, the Grand Jury chose to indict her. In her defense, she demonstrated that teaching free black children to read had been a common practice in the city's Sunday schools for years. The jury's penalty of one dollar was overturned by a Judge Baker, who imposed a month-long prison sentence, "as an example to all others in like cases."

In rendering judgement, Baker spoke at length about the importance of religious instruction of blacks and its role in making slaves moral and happy, but stressed that it should be kept separate from "intellectual" instruction. He blamed this prohibition against black education on "abolition pamphlets and inflammatory documents" intended "to be distributed among our Southern negroes to induce them them to cut our throats."

The Verdict & Judgement:

November 13 [1853]

The Jury this morning returned into court with a verdict of Guilty, and fixing the penalty at a fine of one dollar. The Court then adjourned for the term.

January 10, 1854

After the adjournment of the Court on November 13, Mrs. Douglass obtained permission from the Judge and the Sheriff to visit New York, where she remained several weeks, returning to Norfolk with her daughter. She appeared today for sentence.

JUDGE BAKER . . .

There are persons, I believe, in our community, opposed to the policy of the law in question. They profess to believe that universal intellectual culture is necessary to religious instruction and education, and that such culture is suitable to a state of slavery; and there can be no misapprehension as to your opinions on this subject, judging from the indiscreet freedom with which you spoke of your regard for the colored race in general. Such opinions in the present state of our society I regard as manifestly mischievous. It is not true that our slaves cannot be taught religious and moral duty, without being able to read the Bible and use the pen. Intellectual and religious instruction often go hand in hand, but the latter may well be exist without the former; and the truth of this is abundantly vindicated by the well-known fact in many parts of our own Commonwealth, as in other parts of the county in which among the whites one-fouth or more are entirely without a knowledge of letters, respect for the law, and for moral and religious conduct and behavior, are justly and propely appreciated and practiced.

A valuable report or document recently published in the city of New York by the Southern Aid Society sets forth many valuable and important truths upon the condition of Southern slaves, and the utility of moral and religious instruction, apart from a knowledge of books. I recommend the careful perusal of it to all whose opinions concur with your own. It shows that a system of catechetical instruction, with a clear and simple exposition of Scripture, has been employed with gratifying success; that the slave population. of the South are peculiarly susceptible of good religious influences. Their mere residence among a Christian people has wrought a great and happy change in their condition: they have been raised from the night of heathenism to the light of Christianity, and thousands of them have been brought to a saving knowledge of the Gospel.

Of the one hundred millions of the negro race, there cannot be found another so large a body as the three millions of slaves in the United States, at once so intelligent, so inclined to the Gospel, and so blessed by the elevating influence of civilization and Christianity. Occasional instances of cruelty and oppression, it is true, may sometimes occur, and probably will ever continue to take place under any system of laws: but this is not confined to wrongs committed upon the negro; wrongs are committed and cruelly practiced in a like degree by the lawless white man upon his own color; and while the negroes of our town and State are known to be surrounded by most of the substantial comforts of life, and invited both by precept and example to participate in proper, moral and religious duties, it argues, it seems to me, a sickly sensibility towards them to say their persons, and feelings, and interests are not sufficiently respected by our laws, which, in effect, tend to nullify the act of our Legislature passed for the security and protection of their masters.

The law under which you have been tried and found guilty is not to be found among the original enactments of our Legislature. The first legislative provision upon this subject was introduced in the year 1831, immediately succeeding the bloody scenes of the memorable Southampton insurrection; and that law being found not sufficiently penal to check the wrongs complained of, was re-enacted with additional penalties in the year 1848, which last mentioned act, after several years' trial and experience, has been re-affirmed by adoption, and incorporated into our present code. After these several and repeated recognitions of the wisdom and propriety of the said act, it may well be said that bold and open opposition to it is a matter not to be slightly regarded, especially as we have reason to believe that every Southern slave state in our country, as a measure of self-preservation and protection, has deemed it wise and just to adopt laws with similar provisions.

There might have been no occasion for such enactments in Virginia, or elsewhere, on the subject of negro education, but as a matter of self-defense against the schemes of Northern incendiaries, and the outcry against holding our sIaves in bondage. Many now living well remember how, and when, and why, the anti-slavery fury began, and by what means its manifestations were made public. Our mails were clogged with abolition pamphlets and inflammatory documents, to be distributed among our Southern negroes to induce them to cut our throats. Sometimes, it may be, these libelous documents were distributed by Northern citizens professing Southern feelings, and at other times, by Southern people professing Northern feelings. These, however, were not the only means resorted to by the Northern fanatics to stir up insubordination among our slaves. They scattered far and near pocket handkerchiefs, and other similar articles, with frightful engravings, and printed over with anti-slavery nonsense, with the view to work upon the feeling and ignorance of our negroes, who otherwise would have remained comfortable and happy. Under such circumstances there was but one measure of protection for the South, and that was adopted. . . .

For these reasons, as an example to all others in like cases disposed to offend, and in vindication of the policy and justness of our laws, which every individual should be taught to respect, the judgment of the Court is, in addition to the proper fine and costs, that you be imprisoned for the period of one month in the jail of this city.

The situation was better in the North and the first African Free School was opened in New York City in 1787. This school and six others in the city began receiving public funding in 1824. People who graduated from these schools included Henry Highland Garnet and Ira Aldridge.

When Prudence Crandall, a Quaker, opened a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, attempts were made by local white people to burn the building down. Despite attempts to prevent the school receiving essential supplies, Crandall school continued and began to attract girls from Boston and Philadelphia. The local authorities then began using a vagrancy law against these students. These girls could now be given ten lashes of the whip for attending the school. William Lloyd Garrison reported the case in the Liberator and with the support of the Anti-Slavery Society Crandall continued to run the school.

In 1834 Connecticut passed a law making it illegal to provide a free education for black students. When Prudence Crandall refused to obey the law she was arrested and imprisoned. Crandall was convicted but won the case on appeal. When news of the court decision reached Canterbury, a white mob attacked the school and threatened the lives of Crandall and her students. Afraid that the children would be killed or badly injured, Crandall decided to close her school down.

In 1849 Charles Sumner helped Sarah C. Roberts to sue the city of Boston for refusing to admit black children to its schools. Their case was lost but in 1855 Massachusetts legislature changed its policy and declared that "no person shall be excluded from a Public School on account of race, colour or prejudice."

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