"Reading in the Margins:
The Politics and Culture of Literacy in Georgia, 1800-1920"

by Bruce Fort

Abstract:

This dissertation explores the role of written language in the lives of nineteenth-century Southerners. As the ability to read and write became widespread in the region, people struggled to understand what literacy meant and to determine its place within the South's continually shifting constellations of social and political power. Slaves equated literacy with freedom, self-mastery, and redemption, and educated slaves used the skill to gain control over their lives by forging passes, reading the Bible, and asserting their status within the slave community. Some masters carefully guarded against slave literacy, paradoxically asserting the demands of safety and the futility of trying to educate blacks. Others favored teaching slaves to read, citing the need to Christianize slaves and to demonstrate to critics that slavery was a humanizing and progressive institution. After emancipation, blacks saw that literacy would be crucial to fashioning freedom on their own terms, a freedom that would be meaningful, sustainable, and defensible from white attack. During Reconstruction black men saw that their claim to the full rights of citizenship, especially the right to vote, hinged on their ability to read and write. In 1870, fewer than one in ten black Southerners could write, but thirty years later half the region's black population was literate. Ironically, by the turn of the century Democrats had seized upon the ideal of an informed citizenry, using the language of Progressive reform to justify literacy tests that disfranchised black and many poor white voters. Suffrage qualifications focused public attention on the South's lagging literacy rates, and in the years following disfranchisement reformers established illiteracy commissions and adult education programs--even as black high schools were dismantled and the curriculum of rural schools was recast to emphasize hygiene, health, and industrial instruction.

I began this study wanting to explore the connections between the ability to communicate and the exercise of various forms of social power. We take for granted the rather bland truism that "knowledge is power," but in my study I wanted to show how this understanding actually operated in people's lives. I quickly gravitated toward the most concrete and prolonged expression of this ideology in the history of the region: the use of literacy tests to disfranchise black (and some white) voters at the turn of the twentieth century. What struck me about disfranchisement is that the only major abrogation of the suffrage in the nation's history was cast as a reasonable measure which would strengthen democracy rather than undermine it. Every other chapter in the history of suffrage is a story of expansion--first to landless white men, then to black men, to women, and finally to young adults. But the notion of a "qualified suffrage" allowed progressives north and south, black elites, and the U. S. Supreme Court to sanction restriction in the name of progress. I have traced the connections between civic and intellectual life throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the drive to create an informed citizenry during the early national period, picking up again with the establishment of black male citizenship in the late 1860s, and then finally looking at disfranchisement itself. When we view the use of literacy tests to disfranchise voters as the culmination of an ideology that developed over the course of the nineteenth century, we see the democratization of reading ironically meeting its match in the anti-democratic impulse of disfranchisement and progressivism.

This study also takes issue with one of the most enduring and demeaning stereotypes of the region: the image of the ignorant Southerner. This reputation has persisted in black and white for generations, as the slouching, mumbling Tom and as the illiterate, spit-drooling cracker. This dissertation traces the roots of this widely held view of Southerners and examines how both the image and the underlying realities came to be. I assess the extent to which Southerners of both races and various classes were engaged in learning. Thus we hear a bookseller speaking of people in rural Georgia "tearing me to pieces" trying to get their hands on his books; we see white children in antebellum Georgia learning to read in makeshift schools; we see slaves reading despite the threat of severe punishment; we see the centrality of reading in defining black freedom; and we see the students of Atlanta University teaching other children the ABCs in the Georgia countryside.

Throughout the study, I have sought to weave together public and private narratives of literacy. Alongside stories of battles over public school funding and the suffrage are other stories, stories marked more by private reflection than by public pronouncement. As the study revisits the public discussions about education, it also revisits the parlors and cabin porches where people read and wrote privately, for pleasure and relaxation, for self-improvement, and to stay in touch with distant relatives. As the study examines efforts to institute or to eliminate anti-literacy slave laws, it also revisits brush arbors where black Southerners learned to read--furtively and illegally as slaves, and with open determination after freedom. It looks into tent meetings, editorial offices, schoolrooms and bedrooms, listening for conscious and unconscious expressions of the ways that reading changed peoples' lives.


Top of Document Home

Send comments and suggestions to Bruce Fort