Such racial perceptions and experiences set black homeschoolers apart from their white counterparts—as do black homeschooling’s origins in African Americans’ historical efforts to take ownership over their own education and knowledge. Fields-Smith likened the black-homeschooling movement to enslaved black people’s pursuit of literacy, which they equated with freedom and empowerment. The University of Georgia researcher recounted: “When told we could not be educated, we went out in the woods, we dug a pit, and when somebody learned to read, they’d sneak out at night, go down in that pit with a light, and teach [others] how to read, because it was that important.” Today, for black home educators, “it’s still that ‘each one, reach one’” mentality, she explained. “It looks different, but it harkens back to who we are, who we have been in our educational history.”
Tracing that history yields a better understanding of how black homeschooling emerged—and of how it could continue to evolve. In the 2007 book Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, the historian Heather Andrea Williams examined black Americans’ perseverance in their pursuit of learning during slavery, the Civil War, and their first decades of freedom. Using enslaved peoples’ narratives and autobiographies, she documented the significance of education “as an instrument of resistance … to gain some control over their own lives.”
During the antebellum period, legislatures across the South—viewing literacy as a direct threat to the institution of slavery—passed laws criminalizing reading or writing for enslaved and free blacks. The movement to oppose black education also extended to northern free states such as Connecticut, where a boarding school founded by abolitionists in 1832 for black girls was promptly banned by the legislature and then set ablaze by local residents.
In the face of the backlash, black people educated themselves. According to Williams, archaeologists excavating slave cabins more than a century after the Civil War found, among the more-predictable artifacts, “the remains of graphite pencils and writing slates, some with words and numbers still written on them.”
Learning was integral to black people’s emancipation and autonomy both before and after the Civil War. During Reconstruction, as the country sought to rebuild and reshape society in the former Confederacy, “the values of self-help and self-determination underlay the ex-slaves’ educational movement,” writes the black-education scholar James D. Anderson in his book The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935.
In the years after emancipation, formerly enslaved men and women established a formal system of schooling for their children, eventually aided by northern white missionaries and the congressionally established Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to help transition black people from slavery to freedom. Yet the conflicting interests of northern allies and philanthropists, along with white southerners who regained control of state governments after Reconstruction, suppressed the growth of black education, Anderson concludes, impeding freed people’s ability to mold their children’s education without external forces suppressing their vision.