Have you ever wondered how emancipation led to some of the most prominent classic stories by Black authors? While the emancipation proclamation declared freedom for slaves, it didn’t solve the issue of civil rights. Newly freed slaves were still silenced at the polls and prevented from sharing their opinions. Here’s how literacy developed due to these restrictions, and the stories that came from it.
While the Emancipation Proclamation granted slaves freedom, they faced a new issue—literacy tests. Literacy tests were created to be a barrier between the freed Blacks and the voting polls. If someone failed the test, they couldn’t vote.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of newly freed slaves did not have the literacy skills to pass. There was a fear among slave owners that Black literacy would lead to abolitionism. Slave owners worried that if slaves could read, they’d question the system and their place within it. So slave owners rarely permitted reading, which meant most slaves were illiterate. Screening for literacy before voting was designed to eliminate the newly freed slaves from the voting pool.
For a while, these tests skewed voting numbers. Even if a slave was literate, other demeaning tests were crafted to prevent them from reaching the polls. Understanding Clauses were established in some states, which forced voters to read and explain a passage from the state constitution. Grandfather Clauses prevented someone from voting unless their grandfather voted. If you think these clauses sound unfairly skewed to prevent freed Black people from voting, you’d be right. All these tests were designed merely to find any excuse to turn them away from the polls.
The only way to solve it was to advocate for civil rights and further the education of newly freed slaves. Otherwise, their voices would never be heard.
Literacy Education After Emancipation
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the one way to fix illiteracy was through schooling. Many Americans believed in the fundamental right to education. So when slaves became freed people, many thought they deserved the education that came with freedom. Along with this, newly freed slaves began teaching each other what they knew as Black communities began to form.
These communities often became schools, such as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Other schools were also established in the pursuit of education, like the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Both these schools are still around today, though they’re now known as Hampton University and Tuskegee University.
Schools like these are what helped raise literacy rates among African Americans in the United States. In turn, this allowed them to be able to vote despite literacy tests. Through hard work and education, they overcame the attempts to silence their votes.
With increasing literacy rates, this meant new writers as well as readers. This spawned a new genre of stories known as Slave Narratives. Aptly titled, these stories were written by prior slaves. Typically, it covered their experiences during slavery. Hundreds of personal narratives were collected during this time. As literacy rates climbed higher, interest in writing grew as well. This created many powerful narratives.
They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it.—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Many of these writers addressed the issue of civil rights. They confronted the ways towns attempted to suppress the right to vote with methods like literacy tests. While in their time, these stories helped spread knowledge of civil rights, they’re still impactful today. These stories help give researchers more details about the time period and help Americans understand the history of their nation.
Emancipation Led to Black Literature of Reconstruction through Civil Rights
Slave narratives were only the beginning of greater expansions in Black literature. Many of the pieces of fiction, plays, and poems read in schools today originate from the Reconstruction era after the emancipation proclamation.
The first Black American novel was released shortly after, titled, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States by William Wells Brown. His story followed the fictional lives of Clotel and her sister, daughters of Thomas Jefferson. It was one of the first stories to criticize the morals of the United States, which promised freedom, while slaves suffered.
Brown also released the first play by a Black author titled The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom. Which similarly followed the story of what it was like to be a fugitive slave.
Black women began to write as well. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the first Black woman to publish a short story. Her story, “The Two Offers,” explored what it was like to be a woman in such a difficult era.
These stories, along with many others, built the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. They helped to raise awareness, give a voice to Black writers, and document history. By making sure these stories weren’t forgotten, Civil Rights activists had fantastic pieces of literature to back up their arguments. As Black people fought for their voice at the polls and in literature, they created the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement that got us to where we are today.
It was a difficult and hard-fought battle for Civil Rights. If you want to learn more, check out another Bookstr article covering Civil Rights here.