Skip to Content
Photograph of people at Drayton Plantation

Chapter 05

Making a Way

African Americans fought slavery and inequality in ways large and small, from open rebellion to subtle acts of resistance. Using connections—family, neighbors, worship services, and formal political conventions—African Americans shared news, created networks, and developed strategies for “making a way out of no way.” State and local governments responded with “black codes” and “slave codes,” race-based laws that attempted to restrict Black lives. African American persistence and grassroots organizing still serve as a model for social activists today.

Illustration of school in Gay Head, Massachusetts

Section IIIIllegal to Read

Laws were enacted to control access to literacy, a source of Black empowerment.

Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to . . . produce insurrection and rebellion . . . any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this state to read or write . . . shall be liable to indictment.

North Carolina Slave Code, 1831

States & Territories Restricting African American Education

Connecticut

Georgia

Missouri

Mississippi

New York

North Carolina

Ohio

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

Virginia

Illustration of school in Gay Head, Massachusetts

School in Gay Head, Massachusetts

Education

Illustration of school in Gay Head, Massachusetts

School in Gay Head, Massachusetts

African Americans connected freedom with education for many practical reasons. A person who could write could compose a pass permitting a visit to family. A literate person could pick up a newspaper and let people know about national slavery debates and rebellions. Words mattered. They carried information and seeds of hope. Sermons, speeches, songs, and the written word connected African Americans and built a political consciousness.

In the North and West, many states refused to fund Black education and refused to admit Black students to public schools. Some enslaved African Americans attended secret schools operated by Black educators. Adults raised money for schools and teachers, sometimes through churches or other Black-owned institutions. One of the first Black schools was New York’s Free African School founded in 1787. Almost a century later, the African American School in Gay Head was established.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Frederick Douglass

As an enslaved boy in Baltimore, Maryland, Frederick Douglass taught himself how to write by copying the letters from shipping labels that he saw daily in Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard.

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass brought Americans face-to-face with his experience of slavery and freedom. As one of over 150 formerly enslaved people to publish his life story, he helped establish an important American literary tradition. Without these accounts, Americans then and now would not understand what it meant to be enslaved.

Photograph of Narcisse Prud’homme’s cotton bale stencil

Narcisse Prud’homme’s Cotton Bale Stencil, Louisiana

A school copy book printed by Philip Price in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and used by Hannah Amelia Lyons. The book has paper covers bound on the proper left side. A length of knotted pink string extends from the top edge of the binding, serving as a bookmark. Several engravings are printed on the front and back covers. On the front cover is a portrait of John Adams entitled "Late President of the United States," above an allegorical scene and space for the owner to sign the book, followed by the printer's name. The back cover has an image of an eagle flying over open waters between two ships and clasping a banner reading "SHIPPED" in its beak. Below the eagle is a floral sprig on the left and a grouping of masonic symbols on the right, with a thin scrollwork border below them. Below the border is a shield with an eagle inside it holding a banner reading "E Pluribus Unum". Below the shield are two separate allegorical scenes. The interior pages contain various school exercises including mathematics and poetry, with inscriptions dating from 1830 to 1836. On the front cover, within a printed box at bottom center is "THE PROPERTY OF" with the signature [Hannah A. Lyons / 1832].

Hannah A. Lions’s School Copy Book, 1831

Liberation in Literacy

A school copy book printed by Philip Price in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and used by Hannah Amelia Lyons. The book has paper covers bound on the proper left side. A length of knotted pink string extends from the top edge of the binding, serving as a bookmark. Several engravings are printed on the front and back covers. On the front cover is a portrait of John Adams entitled "Late President of the United States," above an allegorical scene and space for the owner to sign the book, followed by the printer's name. The back cover has an image of an eagle flying over open waters between two ships and clasping a banner reading "SHIPPED" in its beak. Below the eagle is a floral sprig on the left and a grouping of masonic symbols on the right, with a thin scrollwork border below them. Below the border is a shield with an eagle inside it holding a banner reading "E Pluribus Unum". Below the shield are two separate allegorical scenes. The interior pages contain various school exercises including mathematics and poetry, with inscriptions dating from 1830 to 1836. On the front cover, within a printed box at bottom center is "THE PROPERTY OF" with the signature [Hannah A. Lyons / 1832].

Hannah A. Lions’s School Copy Book, 1831

Attending school in Philadelphia, Hannah Lions copied down her math, history, and poetry lessons in this notebook. Her family saved it as “proof that there were some educated [Black] people way back when.”