In June 1852 Margaret Douglass, a white woman and former slaveholder, began a school for free black children, which she operated out of her home in Norfolk, Virginia. The school opened with an enrollment of twenty-five boys and girls. On the morning of May 9, 1853, eleven months after starting the school, Douglass was arrested for violating a Virginia law that made it illegal to assemble any African Americans, free or enslaved, for the purpose of instructing them to read or write. Douglass pleaded ignorance of the law, having understood that the regulation applied to enslaved blacks only. For this reason, Douglass was careful to enroll only free blacks at her school. Although the mayor of Norfolk seems to have dismissed Douglass' case, the local grand jury indicted her in November 1853, and she was convicted and fined one dollar. Acting in her own defense, Douglass insisted that she was not an abolitionist, that she approved of the institution of slavery, that she had only tutored free blacks at her school, and that her students also attended a white-run Sunday school, at which they received books and instruction in reading and writing. When Douglass returned to court to receive her sentence on January 10, 1854, the judge required her to serve a one-month prison sentence “as an example to all others in like cases.”
Following Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, the General Assembly passed several new laws to restrict the freedom of enslaved and free black Virginians, including an early version of the law under which Douglass was convicted. Because many white Virginians believed that Turner's literacy and his role as a preacher contributed to his rebellion, they made it illegal for black ministers to preach and required white clergymen to superintend black religious services. Although they did not make it illegal for white people to teach black people to read and write, they did make it illegal to assemble enslaved and free blacks for that purpose. Abolitionist literature printed in the North began to appear in Virginia about that same time, reinforcing apprehensions among slave owners that gatherings of literate African Americans, even if under white supervision, posed a threat to public safety.
By the early years of the nineteenth century most African Americans in Virginia had been converted to Protestant Christianity, and many of them regularly attended church services. White Virginians held contradictory opinions about whether the spiritual advantages to black Virginians of being able to read the Bible outweighed the dangers that literacy would make enslaved people ambitious for freedom. Nevertheless, a great many Virginians, especially women, undertook to teach their own slaves to read and write, and others readily taught in Sunday schools where they emphasized the responsibility of servants to obey their masters and mistresses and to accept the status in life into which they were born. Enslaved and free African Americans often prized literacy as a precious gift that enabled them to live better lives and to read their own Bibles.
A southerner and former slaveholder, Douglass was an unlikely martyr to the cause of African American education. Instructing children, sometimes including black children, was the responsibility of white middle- and upper-class women in nineteenth-century society. Douglass's refusal to remain silent after her arrest forced her to depart from her proper role of a lady in southern society. Under attack, Douglass fought for her innocence and her desire to enlighten all children's minds with Christian principles.
1. Why was Margaret Douglass arrested?
2. For how long was she imprisoned?
1. Why did white people in the nineteenth century seek to prevent African Americans from seeking educations? What were their fears? What historical incidents involving literate slaves fueled their fears?
Douglass, Margaret. Educational Laws of Virginia: The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglass. Boston: J. P. Jewitt & Co., 1854.
Foner, Philip S., and Josephine F. Pacheco. Three Who Dared: Prudence Crandall, Margaret Douglass, Myrtilla Miner—Champions of Antebellum Black Education. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984.
Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. "When I Can Read My Title Clear": Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.