Learning to read and write was forbidden to many slave children. Slave masters feared young slaves would become increasingly unhappy with their position in society if they realized they were able to learn as well as white children.
Some slaves did learn to read and write, however. A few learned from their masters because the masters believed reading the Bible was important for all Christians, including their slaves. Other slaves learned because it was convenient for their masters to have intelligent slaves. For example, one doctor taught his slave to write so the slave could help him keep records of his patients. Frederick Douglass was initially taught to read by his mistress, who then stopped teaching him because it angered her husband.
Even when help from the master or mistress of the house was not available, slaves found other ways to learn. For example, when Douglass’s mistress stopped teaching him, he found white neighborhood boys who gave him lessons. He snuck bread out of the house when he was sent on an errand, and traded the bread for lessons from the other boys. Learning to write was a bit trickier for Douglass, since his mistress’s lessons had not extended beyond reading. He managed to copy a few letters that he saw at the shipyard in a notebook, however. He convinced other boys to unknowingly teach him even more letters. As he writes in his autobiography, “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.” Eventually Douglass learned to write with the help of these children.
The kind of determination Douglass and other slaves showed toward learning resulted in about 5% of the 1860 enslaved population becoming literate. The actual number is unknown because some slaves who may have been able to read might have denied it because they did not want their masters to find out.