Monday, February 9, 2009

Black Women Abolitionists/Educators (part 1)

In the South, both free blacks and slaves used secular education as a strategy to undermine the slave system. An example is Milla Granson who learned to read and write from her owner's children. She used her education to open a "midnight school." Her school continued to operate because legislation declared that while it was illegal for whites to teach slaves, there was no law against slaves teaching other slaves. According to her own account, Milla graduated hundreds of slaves who could read and write.

Literacy aided in the escape of many slaves. Susie King Taylor* explained that the laws of Georgia required all blacks, free and slave, to carry passes to be permitted on the city streets. She spoke of frequently forging passes for her grandmother, a free woman. Milla Granson mentioned that of her graduates, many wrote passes for themselves and escaped to Canada.

Among the many proslavery arguments, perhaps the most degrading was the one that claimed that blacks were non-intellectual beings. Many abolitionists used education to combat this notion. One such woman was Frances J. Coppin. Coppin was born a slave in the District of Columbia and was aware of the argument that Negroes were incapable of learning. When she gained her freedom (her aunt purchased her freedom), Coppin determined "to get an education and teach [her] people." When Coppin heard that John C. Calhoun**, had stated that if a Negro could learn to conjugate verbs in Greek, he would abandon his belief in the inferiority of blacks, she decided to take his challenge. Coppin did learn to speak Greek to the point of conjugating verbs.

While Frances Coppin was teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, a writer called on her and explained that he had a manuscript proving the subintellect of Negroes. Coppin asked Jesse Glasgow, a black child at the school, to answer any questions the author desired. After Jesse correctly answered all the questions posed, the writer decided his theories were wrong and never published the book.

* Susie King Taylor was a slave who ran away with the Union army during the Civil War. She spent the remainder of the war traveling with the troops and serving as a cook and laundress for them. She also wrote a memoir of the period entitled, "Reminiscences of My Life in Camp."

** John C. Calhoun had been a Senator from South Carolina and was the Vice President under JQ Adams and Jackson. He was an outspoken supporter of States' Rights and also furthered many of the racist proslavery arguments. Many streets and counties in the south still bare his name. It was nearly a deal-breaker on my marriage when we bought a house in one of those areas. I may dislike him more than anyone else I've studied.

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