Posted on 09/28/2013

Photo taken on October 1, 1870

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circa 1870

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Photo replaced on September 29, 2013
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Vintage Siblings

Vintage Siblings
Carte-de-visite of a brother and sister holding a book, names unknown.
Gladstone Collection

For many slaves, the ability to read and write meant freedom—if not actual, physical freedom, then intellectual freedom—to maintain relationships among family members separated by the slave trade. A few wrote slave narratives, which, when published, powerfully exposed the evils of slavery. For slaves and their teachers, the exercise of reading and writing was a dangerous and illegal one. In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.

Although some masters did teach their slaves to read as a way to Christianize them, most slave owners believed that teaching such skills was useless, if not dangerous. They assumed that slaves had no use for reading in their daily lives, and that literacy would make them more difficult to control, and more likely to run away.

For those who managed to become literate and escape to freedom, the ability to write would spark the growth of a powerful genre of literature: the slave narrative. For the abolitionist movement, slave narratives would become tremendously effective weapons in attacking the institution of slavery. Despite the danger of physical punishment and the threat of capture for the authors of slave narratives, these men and women took great risks to empower themselves, and in some cases, achieved freedom.

Slave letters reveal a great deal about the emotional lives of slaves and the cruelty inherent in the slave system. Although most slaves were not literate, those who could write, or who had access to literate friends, have left behind wrenching documents that express the anguish of parents divided from their children, and the longings family members experienced for loved ones forcibly separated from them.

Info: Abolitionism in America, Cornell University