Teaching American Slaves

Guest post by author Andrea Cumbo, http://www.andilit.com.


Andrea is a writer, editor, and writing teacher who is working on a book about the people who were enslaved on the plantation where she was raised. She writes this not as a former slave, but as a young women who grew up on this plantation in recent history.The bleachers are still there.  Covered with gray chalky paint. Tucked against the brick wall. The small room is not hidden but is hardly noticeable  in the corner of the house wing closest to the fields and the slave quarter.

In this space, the enslaved children on this plantation were educated. They were taught to read and write. They learned simple arithmetic and biology.  A whale vertebra from their lessons still rests on the floor across from their seats.
Louisa, the master’s wife, taught them for years, and then one of her pupils – Lucy Skipwith – took over.  When Lucy was moved to Alabama, she started a slave school there.  The legacy continued.
Despite modern misconceptions, it wasn’t actually illegal for masters to educate their slaves as long as the education took place on the master’s property by the master’s people.  It was, however, deeply frowned upon, and the master here was almost beaten to death for his efforts.  So, most slave owners did not educate their slaves – too much risk, too much effort?
But the owner here, on this plantation where I was raised, did.  He believed that education was the key to freedom.  He did not believe that sending people out into American society without skills and knowledge was responsible, and while we can judge him from our viewpoint in the 21st century, he did – at least – do this much: he taught his people how to read and write. In total, the master here only freed a few of the almost 300 people who were enslaved during his lifetime, but perhaps the mental freedom, the ability to think new thoughts, to imagine new worlds gave them a little of the hope that comes with knowing other things despite their horrific situation.
So this holiday season, I think of these enslaved children on those gray bleachers, their slates in their hands, shaky numerals and words etched on the black tile, and I find hope in them.  In the freedom that education brings, may we all find hope and may we share it so that we bring freedom – from poverty, from abuse, from isolation – for all.If you are fortunate enough to have received an education, what has that education brought you in the way of freedom?  In what practical ways, could you share that freedom with other people?

About Andrea
Andrea (Andi) Cumbo is a writer, editor, and writing teacher who is working on a book about the people who were enslaved on the plantation where she was raised.  You can see more about her project here at her Kickstarter site – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1596635732/you-will-not-be-forgotten and read more of her work at her blog – http://www.andilit.com.

*Note* The above blog post is a guest blog from our Twitter friend Andrea. This content does not necessarily reflect the views of Better World Books (as our lawyers make sure we say). We love having guest bloggers and invite you to email 11@betterworldbooks.com if you are interested in covering a book or topic on the BWB Blog. Thank you, Andrea! We cannot wait to read the finished product.



  1. love this post. Just lovely.

  2. Mónica McCrea-Steele says:

    I can’t hardly wait to get this book and read it, and pass it on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *