Georgia’s 1829 Anti-Literacy Act stated: “…if any slave, negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro, or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping at the discretion of the court; and if a white person so offending, he, she, or they shall be punished with fine, not exceeding five hundred dollars, and imprisonment in the common jail at the discretion of the court before whom said offender is tried.           

With this law, Governor George R. Gilmer solidified the role of state governments in suppressing knowledge and aggressively positioning literacy as the key component to personhood and citizenship.  Given that both enslaved and free African Americans found themselves subject to the same restrictions, gaining access to and mastering the very valuable tool of literacy, fueled daily life. African Americans found continued barriers to accessing literacy into the 1950s when libraries, including Purcellville Library in Loudoun County, Va., prohibited Blacks from accessing or checking out books in libraries.  

Undeterred, African Americans created their own private libraries, reading clubs, and literacy councils.  They also researched, wrote, and published their own books, illuminating the importance of literacy.  In places like Louisville, Kentucky, the Black residents in 1905, opened the first free public library for African American readers staffed and operated entirely by African Americans. 

This brief history lesson establishes a clarion call to return to literacy in Black America as a necessity of life.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a sector of the U.S. Department of Education, Black students often lack necessary reading proficiency and comprehension skills. One national test last year, scored only 18 percent of Black 4th-graders proficient or above in reading; for 8th graders, the percentage fell to 15 percent. [White students charted equally dismal scores, with less than 50 percent proficiency on the same tests; only Asian students charted high proficiency at 89 percent.]  In the District of Columbia, more than 70 percent of the 4th grade children in DC scored below basic on the NAEP.

“We need to get back to basics and refrain from blaming the kids, the parents, the neighborhoods, the teachers, and the mayor,” retired schoolteacher Rosalee Stoddard told the Informer.  “The truth is that we are not working together as a community to ensure the success of the children in the nation’s capital.  We are not supporting parents or teachers, and the children cannot be expected to perform successfully without that support.”

Stoddard, who has worked for Philadelphia, Texas, and D.C. school systems said that with the additional burdens D.C. students faced learning to read under COVID mandates to go virtual, all children became “at-risk” for falling behind.  

So, what do we do about this?  We work to kick things up a notch or two.  We set aside gimmicks and fad fixes, and instead develop activities supported by homes, libraries, churches, and recreation centers that reinforce the instruction provided by teachers.  This Informer Back to School supplement reopens the dialogue on what tools young people (and adults) need to improve their reading and comprehension skills. Let’s return to the days of fighting for our literacy.

Read, Learn, & Grow

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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