African Americans connected education with freedom in antebellum America. Literacy allowed a person to compose passes to deceive slave catchers. Literate enslaved people could read newspapers and learn about national debates on slavery and freedom movements throughout the Diaspora. Enslavers also understood that knowledge was power, which added to their fears of organized rebellion and other forms of resistance. In response, they created restrictive laws and harsh punishments to prohibit Black literacy. Formerly enslaved Harriet Jacobs remembered this about her enslaver: “No animal ever watched its prey more narrowly than he watched me. He knew that I could write.”
Despite the risks, enslaved Black people found ways to learn how to read and write, including secretly securing books. Byrd Day recalled the communal support of fellow enslaved people who completed his work so that he could learn. Education uplifted everyone. Frederick Douglass learned to write using the environment around him, by imitating shipping stencils and timber markings in Durgin and Bailey’s Shipyard. As Douglass recalled, “my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write.” A few enslaved people were encouraged to read and write by their enslavers, including Phillis Wheatley, who was the first African American to publish a book of poetry. Free Black people also faced barriers to education. Many northern states prohibited Black children from attending public schools. The free Black community responded by establishing their own schools, one of the first being New York’s Free African School, founded in 1787.