The Roots of Illiteracy
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Although harsh, the French Code Noir (“Black Code”), first instituted in Saint Domingue in 1685 and then revised for Louisiana in 1724, did not prohibit slaves from learning how to read. Louisiana’s Spanish government likewise had no serious objections to people of African descent being able to read, as long as they obeyed the law and did not incite rebellion. After 1803, however, with the coming of Anglo-Americans to Louisiana, the education of slaves was increasingly frowned upon, for it was feared they would read antislavery literature and rebel against their masters. The state legislature passed a law in 1830 stipulating that anyone caught teaching slaves to read or write could be imprisoned for up to a year. The law was reprinted in parish police codes, such as the one shown here.
In the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, Louisiana had a large population of free people of color (often the children of mixed-race relationships). Although many were highly educated, thousands left Louisiana between about 1830 and 1860 to seek a better life in the North, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Sadly, this deprived African Americans who remained of talented leaders and educators. Its effects on black life in Louisiana, including literacy, can arguably still be felt today.
A Moral Dilemma
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Today, we see slavery as inherently evil, but in the mid nineteenth century, its morality was hotly debated. Many Southern planters viewed their relationship with their slaves as a fatherly one. Some thought that abolishing slavery would not only wreck the Southern economy, but also force former slaves into Northern cities and factories, where racism and working conditions were as bad or worse than on Southern plantations. In Louisiana, the planter Daniel Turnbull weighed slavery’s pros and cons. His library contained the full range of books on the issue, from proslavery works such as the rare Missouri periodical The African (1843) to speeches and essays by leading abolitionists. As a vice president of the American Colonization Society, Turnbull received its monthly publication, The African Repository. Founded in 1816 to advocate for the return of free blacks to Africa, the ACS was not as altruistic as it may sound. Some abolitionists criticized it as a racist organization that sought to perpetuate slavery in the United States by getting educated blacks out of the country.
One pamphlet in Daniel Turnbull’s library calls for compromise. Joshua Francis Fisher, a native Philadelphian who married into a family of South Carolina slaveholders, suggested restricting abolitionist propaganda in order to appease the South and prevent civil war, but also argued for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, an action that would no longer require runaway slaves to be returned to their masters. Mailed to Turnbull from Washington, D.C., the pamphlet’s title page contains printed instructions to “Read—and share with your neighbors.”
A Southern Uncle Tom’s Cabin
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Charles Testut emigrated from France to New Orleans in 1839. His novel Le vieux Salomon is a story of slave life and might be said to be the Southern equivalent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s novel, however, was so hated in the South when Testut wrote Le vieux Salomon in 1858 that he feared he would be lynched if he published the book. It was not until 1872, seven years after the Civil War ended, that the novel was finally published.
The Crusade Against Black Illiteracy
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Louisiana has always had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the U.S. In 1870, the census reported that one in three Louisianans could not read. Illiteracy was especially bad among African Americans and can be said to be one of the many legacies of slavery. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Adult Education Project of the Works Progress Administration taught many black adults how to read and write. The 1920s had also seen a significant reduction in black illiteracy. Due in part to the Louisiana Colored Teachers’ Association, the percentage of African Americans in Louisiana who were unable to read fell from about 39 percent in 1920 to 23 percent at the end of the decade.
Black Libraries and Librarians
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In the Jim Crow era, African Americans in Louisiana were not allowed to use public libraries or libraries at white universities. Libraries that served blacks included those at historically black colleges, such as Southern, Dillard, and Xavier Universities, and the Dryades Street Branch of the New Orleans Public Library, opened in 1917 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie. Overall, African Americans’ access to public libraries was low. In 1939, for example, only 22% of Louisiana’s black population was served by libraries, compared to 50% of the white population. Barely two percent of the rural black population had library access; urban blacks fared better, with about 61% having access.
When the Louisiana Library Association was organized in 1925, it had no African-American members. Its constitution did not explicitly bar blacks from becoming members and some white members had no objections to their participation, but Louisiana’s segregation laws would have made it hard for them to attend LLA conferences, which often took place in hotels. In 1962, the influential American Library Association declared that membership in all of its chapters be open to everyone, regardless of race. The LLA Executive Board claimed it was unable to comply and withdrew the chapter from ALA. Its membership was reinstated in 1965, when it admitted its first black members.
Even though it was entirely white prior to 1965, LLA was not inattentive to issues related to African Americans. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, it carried articles about black libraries in its quarterly bulletin and had a special section on “Negro Libraries,” edited by Nathaniel Stewart of the Dillard University library in New Orleans. Excluded from LLA, many of Louisiana’s black librarians became members of the Louisiana Colored Teachers’ Association, founded in 1901 and known after 1947 as the Louisiana Education Association. Its journal carried news of libraries at African-American schools as well as articles on topics such as “Promoting National Defense Through the School Libraries” (April 1941).