“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.
Veney, Bethany. The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman. Boston: Press of Geo. H. Ellis, 1889. Documenting the American South. 1997. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: 22 February 2020
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: 22 February 2020