Due to these impediments, the enslaved were forced to hide in order to learn to read and write.
According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, it was illegal for slaves to gather and attempt to improve their literacy in the English language.
Despite increased advocacy from missionaries, laws prohibiting slaves from reading and writing were tightened in the early 1800s. The percentage of enslaved people who could read and write was around 10%. This percentage only increased slightly after freed slaves began establishing schools following the American Civil War between 1862 and 1865. Some of these interventions increased literacy rates from 30% to 70% by 1910.
The only way for enslaved people in Virginia to improve their literacy was on their own terms or at the request of their owners. Prior to the American Revolution, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, the enslaved were reading and writing through religious organizations.
Many slave owners saw Christian grooming of slaves as a religious obligation, and reading and writing were viewed as effective channels for enslaved people to learn Catholic customs.
Notable religious leaders, including Anglican Bishop Edmund Gibson and Minister Dr. Thomas Bray, have all made significant contributions to improving literacy among the enslaved.
Though Virginia legislators were not opposed to the church’s interventions, they did place barriers in the way of slaves receiving basic education. The role of religious institutions and their parastatals in increasing literacy among the enslaved is significant.
This was made possible because religious leaders saw it as a duty and an important tool in their efforts to convert African Americans to Christianity.
According to religious historians, evangelism and catechism were hampered by the enslaved’s low literacy, so some level of literacy was required to facilitate the teachings of new converts.
Slave owners were deeply concerned about the rapidly increasing percentage of enslaved people gaining freedom through baptism. Laws mandated that an enslaved person be freed after being baptized. A classic case is that of Elizabeth Key, who was freed in 1656 after the court ruled that she is free once baptized.
Following the court’s ruling, many slave owners became hesitant to allow the enslaved to read the Bible for fear that many slaves would take advantage of being baptized to buy their freedom.
The greater impact of this literacy campaign among the enslaved compelled legislators to pass two laws.
The first was that since 1662, the freedom of the enslaved was no longer tied to baptism, but rather to the condition of the mother. The law gave slave owners the authority to define the extent to which the enslaved could participate in religious activities. These obstacles motivated slaves not only to learn to read, but also to teach themselves to write.
In 1680, the General Assembly passed new laws that made it illegal for freed slaves to consider themselves free without written certificates from their owners.
Slaves were considered deserters and were sentenced to 20 lashes if they did not receive a written certificate declaring their freedom.