Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future, that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write.” — Rev. Elijiah P. Marrs, 1885
Throughout the South, it was illegal for white people to teach black people–enslaved and sometimes free–how to read. Some whites taught blacks anyway: at times motivated by kindness, other times by self-interest. But even without the assistance of white people, enslaved Americans learned to read and to write. Facing the threat of whippings and worse, they learned under cover of night, and in “pit schools” in the woods. They hid books in their dresses and under their hats so they would be ready for a lesson at any moment.
Today I am continuing a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–
The next thing I recall as being of any particular importance to me was the death of my mother, and, soon after, that of Master Fletcher. I must have been about nine years old at that time.
Master’s children consisted of five daughters and two sons. As usual in such cases, an inventory was taken of his property (all of which nearly was in slaves), and, being apportioned in shares, lots were drawn, and, as might chance, we fell to our several masters and mistresses.
In 1740, the colony of South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to “teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write,” punishable by a fine of “one hundred pounds, current money.” Within 100 years, at least twelve states would pass statutes proscribing the literacy or education of enslaved or free blacks.
Nevertheless, untold numbers of enslaved Americans did learn to read and write. At times, they had the support and sanction of the white people closest to them. That was case with poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a volume of poetry.
Sometimes, they learned from other enslaved or free people of color.
And others had to scheme and strategize their way to literacy. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was the internationally acclaimed orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, whose memoir became a bestseller.
Bethany Veney’s memoir is much less famous, but still an important contribution to our understanding of slavery. She is featured in today’s episode, the first in a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy.
As you probably already know, there have been many arrests in Greenwood, which is only 30 miles from where I am working. Tomorrow I expect to be there to picket the jail house. This means almost certain arrest.
Yours in freedom,
During the summer of 1964, thousands of young people from across the United States enlisted in the battle for democracy in Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other organizations had already been fighting for the civil rights of African Americans in the Magnolia State. However, most of the rest of the country was unaware that black people were literally losing their lives for trying to vote. The organizers of the Freedom Project hoped that the involvement of young–and predominantly white volunteers–would draw national attention and lead to Federal intervention. In the very first days of the program, three volunteers–two of them white–disappeared. It made national headlines.
America’s lesson in Mississippi politics continued until the Democratic National Convention in August. Before national news cameras, Fannie Lou Hamer testified of losing her home and being beaten for trying to exercise her civil rights. Sympathetic calls flooded the White House. And President Lyndon Johnson feared for his re-election chances.
The Freedom Carrier
July 16, 1964
It is felt that the state of Mississippi has the worst educational system in the entire United States. As degraded as the white education is, the Negro has the worst half of the worst. A need to try to fill the gap was felt. Therefore COFO initiated the idea of Freedom Schools as an attempt to supplement the present system of education.
The first Freedom School to be established was open on July 6. The school will operate on a six weeks basis with a break after the first three weeks. Emphasis is being placed on Negro history and citizenship. English, Sciences, foreign languages, and creative writing are also being offered, as special subjects. Students are able to take two special subjects. In the afternoon, typing, art, drama, and journalism are offered to those interested. The Freedom Carrier is put out by the students in the journalism class. The students are responsible for the makeup of the entire paper.
Students are also being taught how to lay out leaflets and how to run office machinery. Students also participate in folk singing workshops and work with voter registration in the distribution of leaflets throughout the community. For more information on the Freedom Schools you may call the office.
The organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project aimed to bring national attention to the violent suppression of African Americans’ civil rights in the Magnolia State. Later called Freedom Summer, the project had four major components:
(1) Freedom Schools, where volunteers taught black Mississippians reading, writing, science, and math, as well as history, including black history, and their rights as American citizens
(2) Community centers, known as Freedom Houses, where residents could study subjects such as art and dance
(3) Helping black Mississippians to register to vote
(4) Collecting signatures in an effort to seat a delegation at the Democratic National Convention, which would be held in August.
The summer of ’64 did not mark the beginning of civil rights work in Mississippi. But it was a turning point for the state, and for the nation.
“Every order for an infantry advance, a barrage preparatory to the taking of a new objective and, in fact, for every troop movement, came of these ‘fighting lines,’ as we called them. These wires connected to the front, up with the generals and made it possible for the latter to know exactly what was going on at any moment and to direct operations accordingly.”
–Berthe Hunt, Women’s Telephone Unit of the Army Signal Corps
Just a few decades after the invention of the telephone, this technology proved vital to the execution of World War I. Troop movements, and orders to fire, cease-fire, advance, or retreat were communicated by telephone, with the help of switchboard operators. But when the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in France, they were faced with phone lines that had been battered by three years of war. There was also the language barrier to overcome. Bell Telephone helped solve the first problem; the “Hello Girls” solved the second.
November 4, 1918
The chauffeurs have been most tremendously busy these last two weeks on account of moving. My life seems to hinge around choked carbureters, broken springs, long hours on the road, food snatched when you can get it, and sleep. Nothing else has mattered to me and I feel like a regular camion driver, dirty, but so accustomed to the job that it is no longer tiring.
The country over which I have been motoring is tremendously interesting, but most gloomy; unless there are soldiers about there is not a living thing, nothing but waste and destruction. If you saw a whole house you would stop and look at it as a phenomenon. One evening I tried to take a shortcut home with a doctor and we got most hopelessly involved in bad roads which finally led us to an impassable bridge.
We had to retrace our steps completely and start all over again … Never again will I be so foolish as to try short cuts home through ” No Man’s Land,” even if it is French property now.
–Letter from Nora Saltonstall
The fighting stopped on 11/11 at 11 a.m. But the needs continued. In the aftermath of World War I, among the rubble and ruin, American women continued to serve. Significant relief was provided by the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) and the Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées de France (CARD). Women like Anne Tracy Morgan used their wealth and social status to help the French rebuild their homes and villages long after the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
“August 10, 1917
I get my appointment and go loco w joy. It seems to me my reason for existence is explained. All my training and experience seem to have fitted me for just this. Bradford Knapp talks and I get two ideas. Unless one gives all one is not giving enough, and if one can go one should. The other thing was that to our generation has come this great chance for sacrifice. There is a joy in my heart that this has come. Everyone is awfully good about my going away. I did not know how much my work meant to me.”
–Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley
On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for a declaration of war on Germany. War had already been raging for three years. And for the whole of those three years, American women had been involved in the care and comfort of European soldiers and civilians. Now that American men would be fighting, American women took on service as a patriotic duty. But not all women were given an equal opportunity to serve, nor did all American soldiers receive equal access to the welfare services.
“Their house had been destroyed and they had lost all their farm possessions but one cow. They were living in one side of a dirt-floored barn that belonged to some friend, and someone else had given them a bed. But why this family was living at all, I do not know. They had rushed away ahead of the Germans with one hundred and eighty Belgian soldiers at the time of the retreat toward Antwerp, and of the one hundred and eighty soldiers only twenty got out alive. Yet this family had come out intact, and survived typhoid fever after that. There were tears in the eyes of that mother — almost the only weeping we saw in Belgium.”
–Dr. Caroline Hedger, Chicago Women’s Club
Thousands of American women crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be of service to the soldiers and civilians suffering through World War I. Countless more served from their kitchens and communities in the United States. In this first episode of a three-part series on women’s relief work, we will learn about some of the great contributions made by Americans–especially women–before the US declared war on Germany.
… I am glad to know that my people are doing their bit to win the war, they sure make good soldiers and seem to take delight in sticking Fritz with a bayonet or clubbing him with the butt end of a rifle, but their main weapon is the hand grenade…
I am writing to the new commander today asking for special duty as patrol officer and I hope I can get it as it affords a fellow a better chance for promotion and excitement all his own and then I have a score to pay Fritz for leaving a scar on my face, and I want to get him where I can fix him to my own taste. My best regards to Mrs Brimley … and all my friends, and write when you have the time to.
Yours very respectfully,
James W Alston
While the majority of black soldiers serving in World War I were assigned to non-combat jobs such as loading and unloading cargo ships, and burying the dead, soldiers in the 93rdDivision did see combat. This division included Alston’s, as well as the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts of that regiment were the first Americans of any race to receive France’s Croix de Guerre. The Stuff You Missed in History podcast has a very informative episode about the Harlem Hellfighters.
Ten thousand Women who have enough rights without voting and also plenty to do, to attend to their own affairs without meddling with men’s business, ask you to Veto this Suffrage bill. We don’t want to vote, and go to the polls with n****rs — and all kinds of woman.
Mrs G Monroe and thousands of others
We’ve all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but there were millions of women and men who spoke for, and against, women’s suffrage. Today’s mini-episode shares a few of those voices.