Antebellum Slavery/Non-Plantation Slave Life





Ismael Montane

Education and Religion

Extent of Slave Education in the South

Contrary to plantation slave life, slaves off plantations were for the most part literate and able to write. It was a luxury that many urban slaves enjoyed. Literacy opened the world of religion, newspapers and sometimes even books to Negroes, providing a lifeline to the world outside of slavery (Stamp 177).

It was illegal for a slave to read or write, but impossible to regulate. The opportunities for urban blacks were numerous. Some slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, learned to read with the help of old newspaper and books they would carry with them. In his free time him and his friends would learn to write with the use of a Webster’s spelling book. On rare instances slaves were given a formal education by their master or mistress. Sometimes free Negroes created schools as which to teach slaves the basics of reading and writing.

Regardless of the method of learning, reading and writing were no strangers to urban blacks. Travelers, that visited the major southern cities, like Charleston and Columbia were often surprised to see how many Negroes were able to read. One such traveler claimed that hundreds of slaves in the Columbia are fully literate and that in Richmond, almost every slave child is learning to read.

White Disapproval And Opposition of Education

To most southerners, nothing was more dangerous than educating Negroes. Slaveholders felt that their entire system of slavery would collapse if blacks became educated. The only means for which to restrict blacks was through legislation.

The Charleston City Council claimed that literacy amongst slaves would endanger public safety and in turn made it legal for police to break "doors, gates, or windows" in dispersing and gathering for the purpose of mental instruction" of blacks. Also, it was made illegal for blacks to attend public schools. They made almost legally and financially impossible for blacks to establish their own schools.

White Approval of Black Religion

Opposite to what you might have expected, religion amongst slaves was looked at with approval by whites. They believed that religion made slaves better servants by increasing a slave’s morality and that it made slaves easier to control.

A Charleston minister concluded that if "any community on earth is bound by considerations of personal interest, to encourage the diffusion of sound religious principles among the lower orders, we are that community."  These conclusions were evident in that the cities with the most religious participation amongst blacks were those that had the least amount of trouble controlling their population.

Significance Churches Had To Blacks

The range of the church was not limited to just worship. They also provided Sunday school for the children, Bible classes for adults, prayers for the sick, and funeral and burial services for the dead (Stammp 160). Churches provided slaves with a sense of hope. It gave them a purpose to continue moving on in life. The amid songs of redemption and the promises of Paradise, were a life-line to the future.

Funerals were a very sacred part of religion to blacks. Funerals, almost all which were held at night, for just one slave were usually attended to by thirty or forty other slaves elegantly dressed up.

Segregation In Churches

Whether blacks were sat in different galleries or required to go to special churches altogether, it did not take long for segregation to occur in the religious body. This was common not only on Sunday gatherings but also in prayer meetings throughout the week and Bible classes as well.

Whites had little trust in the black churches while blacks enjoyed the independence from their masters. Whites quite often tried to have church for both themselves and blacks under one roof as a means of regulating what went on in church. Blacks, finding spiritual satisfaction by themselves and a greater amount of freedom, flocked to separate congregations. As a result, Sunday mornings were one the most segregated moments of the week.

Works Cited

Wade, Richard C.  Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860.  New York:  Oxford University Press. 1964.

Works Consulted

Boyer, Paul S. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Washington, D.C.:  Heath and Company. 1990.


Frederick Douglass

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