Recently, the state of Florida has been criticized for language in its Social Studies educational guidelines regarding slavery. The most controversial line in the guidelines is: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” This line appears as a “clarification” of a broader lesson on the various duties performed by slaves. Let’s ignore for a moment an important question that motivates much of the controversy: is it ever appropriate to attribute any good to an institution such as slavery?

Instead, I want to focus on an even more basic question. How often were slaves actually able to develop perhaps the most important skill of all: literacy? After all, this line of text will be used to teach students that slaves had the opportunity to develop skills. So, it seems appropriate to ask: to what extent were some of the most essential skills actually developed?

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Black Literacy in the Slave States

To explore this question, I turn to U.S. Census data maintained by the wonderful folks at IPUMS. The data come from a 1-100 random sample of the 1870 and 1880 U.S. population, with a 1-50 oversample of the African American population at those times. Individuals in the sample were asked if they could read or write. I use data from the post-Civil War period because pre-Civil War data from the census either did not include slaves or included only basic information about them. I guess slave owners didn’t really want government census takers poking around asking their “property” about literacy.

Instead, the figure below proxies for the literacy of former slaves by identifying the literacy rate in Confederate states (red bars) as of 1870. Since only 6 percent of Black individuals in these states were free in 1860, this approximation is fairly accurate. For comparison sake, I provide literacy percent in border states (orange) and then free states (green). The figure shows that a full five years after their release from slavery, just 11 percent of Black individuals in Confederate states were literate. Compare that number to 58 percent in free states, with some northern free states well above 75 percent.

Figure 1. Literacy Rates by State, 1870

Source: Author’s calculation from IPUMS 1.2 Percent U.S. Census Data, maintained by University of Minnesota IPUMS.

It seems slaves were unable to obtain the skill of basic literacy for their personal gain during their time in bondage. Why?

Low Slave Literacy: Not an Accident

The fact that the vast majority of freed slaves could not read by 1870 is hardly surprising. First, in most slave states, teaching slaves (or even the rare free Black person) to read was illegal. Following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, every slave state except Tennessee, Maryland, and Kentucky (the latter two were border states) passed anti-literacy laws. As an example, from Alabama:

“Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.”

Alabama Slave Code of 1833

On top of that, slaves could face strict punishments for trying to learn to read. Severe beatings and even amputations were not unheard of for individuals trying to gain their literacy or teaching others.

Indeed, once slavery ended, literacy rates quickly increased for black people living in the former Confederate States. According to the same census data, by 1880, 21 percent of Black individuals in those states were literate. Let me put this differently. If one assumes no slaves were literate (at least in English) when slavery started in 1620, then literacy rates went from 0 to 11 percent over the ensuing 250 years. In the ten years after slaves became free, literacy rates went up almost the same amount, 10 percent. So, it doesn’t seem that many black individuals were able to acquire this basic skill during slavery. But, the second slaves were freed, the literacy rate doubled.

Both Hands

I don’t know the motivation behind the Florida Social Study guidelines “clarification” on slave skill acquisition. But, I certainly worry that it is an attempt to hide the ball. A sort of moral obfuscation by way of a clarification. Claiming that slaves were able to obtain skills for their own personal gain offers people an out. “Sure, slavery was bad, but…”

I would argue that we don’t need to coddle our students in this way. Students don’t need to be taught that everything in American History has at least some good in it. In today’s world, the need to hold an idea in one hand, and a different idea in the other is incredibly important.

America has done amazing things. It created the Declaration of Independence, an aspirational document that inspired leaders from Lincoln to Obama. America helped to free Europe of fascism and maintain an unprecedented period free of large scale conflict on that continent that only recently ended. It is the only country to have landed humans on the moon, and continues to inspire with deep space exploration. America’s universities and private companies produced research that allowed the development of two effective COVID vaccines in under a year. America has done amazing things, and continues to do them.

But, America also has a history that includes slavery. A history that includes the suppression of voting rights for its Black citizens (which those same Florida guidelines seem to cover admirably), the internment of its Japanese citizens, and the forcible removal of Native Americans from their ancestorial lands. America has a history that today lingers in issues surrounding residential segregation and a lack of opportunity for some citizens. If we try to paper over the bad things, then our students won’t realize how far we have come. Nor recognize how far we still have to go.