Thomas Jefferson wrote that he envisioned America’s white-only education system being for “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.” How ironic is it that today, several state legislatures want to continue that line of thinking?
Jefferson advocated for a three-year publicly supported education for all white children — but no such guarantees were to be extended to enslaved Africans or their children.
In addition, he argued for advanced education provided to just a select few white males, and not even white females.
As Jefferson wrote in 1782, the schools will be “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”
He included all enslaved Africans as an integral part of that pile of rubbish.
The United States has been the only nation known to have forbidden education to people they have enslaved, and legislators even went as far to enact laws making it a crime in most Southern states, excluding when they imposed Christian conversion through religious instruction.
Slaveholders identified literacy as a direct threat to the institution of slavery and their economic dependency on the labor it provided. If enslaved people developed literacy, they would be able to learn their history and read the writings of abolitionists, on topics such as attempts to help people escape slave-holding territories, or regarding the 1791-1804 slave revolution in Haiti, or how the end of slavery came to the British Empire in 1833.
Following an enslaved people’s uprising led by abolitionist Nat Turner in 1831, some states went further and extended the education ban to free Black people as well.
A North Carolina law of 1831 stated in part: “Teaching slaves to read and write, tends to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion.”
The Code of Virginia of 1849 was passed to prevent the enslaved from assembling for religious or educational purposes as legislators believed that education would lead to uprisings.
Slavers believed that literacy would understandably make enslaved people angry, dissatisfied, and rebellious.
As stated by a lawyer and clerk of the Supreme Court of the United States, Elias B. Caldwell: “The more you improve the condition of these people, the more you cultivate their minds, the more miserable you make them, in their present state,” he argued.
“You give them a higher relish for those privileges which they can never attain, and turn what we intend for a blessing [slavery] into a curse. No, if they must remain in their present situation, keep them in the lowest state of degradation and ignorance. The nearer you bring them to the condition of brutes, the better chance do you give them of possessing their apathy.”
How very ironic is it that today, several states are either proposing or have passed laws prohibiting the teaching of slavery and other aspects of U.S. history that are not particularly flattering?