The Port Royal Experiment: Literacy for freed slaves

The Port Royal Experiment: Literacy for freed slaves

It was November 1861, about one year into the American civil war. The gunships of the Northern Union Navy were sailing into Port Royal, South Carolina. Their guns were at the ready. However, what they saw was not an army of Confederate soldiers ready to fight. There were no rebellious plantation owners or local residents. Everyone had fled. All except some 10,000 freed slaves standing in rags, many near starvation, all unable to read or write.

How would the navy possibly know they were illiterate? Because, since 1740 South Carolina had made it illegal for a slave to be able to write. In 1834, it became illegal to teach slaves to read. Breaking these literacy state laws, or the even harsher “plantation laws,” could have very serious consequences for both the teacher and the learner. If caught, punishments could include having one’s (writing) fingers chopped off, whippings, beatings, being branded with hot irons, or even being hanged (Quigley, 2006).

The navy had choices. For instance, Captain Sherman could have simply left. There was no threat. Instead, like a foreshadowing of the future of choices made for our field, he recognized literacy is fundamental to human progress. He “recommended that Washington dispatch superintendents and instructors” to help the Freedmen [persons freed from slavery] become literate (Stubblefield & Keane, cited in Quigley, 1997, p. 43).

This was the Port Royal Experiment, a seaport not far from today’s Hilton Head, a South Carolina tourist destination. This early “experiment” became highly controversial. On the public and policy level, it was intended to see if literacy education would enable the Freedmen to take over the farms and plantations after the war. But on another less public level, it was a “test” in the eyes of Southerners and a large number of Northerners to determine if African American freed slaves were actually capable of learning to read and write (Quigley, 2006).

Penn SchoolOur heroes were Rev. William T. Richardson along with his wife and members of the Gideonite missionary community. They answered the navy’s call for help, sailing from New York City on March 3, 1862 under the auspices of the New York Freedmen’s Relief Organization. They courageously went into an active war zone where the Northern army and navy were the enemy and the freed slaves were the despised chattel of the South.

Unlike the Bristol School Movement, the teachers combined "religious and teaching instruction" (Rachal, 1986, p. 16) with a curriculum both religious and secular. New school buildings rose up and thousands of freed slaves came forward. The women carried their children on their hips or backs as they walked for miles along dusty roads to reach the schools, coming forward with “an instinctive sense of literacy's value" (Rachal, 1986, p. 16). They had an abiding “attraction to that which is characteristic of all forbidden fruit” (Swint, 1967, p. 72); their place in society had been dictated by the slave owners and texts such as the Bible had always been forbidden fruit to them.

The actual “experiment”

Despite his debilitating illnesses and struggles, Rev. Richardson found time to write copious letters, “usually…by candlelight by screenless windows deep into the evening” (Rachal, 1986, p. 15). He mainly wrote to his superiors in New York about the progress being made while pleading for resources and support in a war zone. As a side note, I personally saw microfilm of these letters at Tulane University. Rachel said there were what appeared to be tear drops on the pages. I saw these drops myself on some of the pages.

The Richardson’s took it as a secondary mission to confront the ignorance and racism back home as they continually made it clear to a Northern audience that African American adult learners were at least their intellectual equals. As Rachal points out, “in that context, Richardson’s conclusion was ahead of its time” (p. 19).

Sadly, Richardson basically worked himself to death. Although the Port Royal Experiment was later to be revived into the famous Penn School movement in the Sea Islands, it nevertheless came to an end, as did much of adult literacy education through the Jim Crow period and Reconstruction.

Black leader W.E.B. DuBois, a major intellectual who fought white domination, wrote: “The teachers came…not to keep Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the places of defilement where slavery had sealed them” (cited in DeBoer, 1995, Preface).

While the Port Royal Experiment proved beyond a doubt the Freedmen were the intellectual equals of whites, it took until 1964 and the Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act, before African Americans gained full voting rights and were no longer banned from voting due to racist literacy testing and literacy classism towards those living with low-literacy skills.

Read More

Akenson, J.E., & Neufeldt, H.G. (1990). The Southern literacy campaign for Black adults in the early twentieth century. In H.G. Neufeldt & L. McGee (Eds.), Education of the African American adult: An historical overview (pp. 179-190). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

DeBoer, C.M. (1995). His truth is marching on: African Americans who taught the freedmen for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

Quigley, A. (1997). Rethinking literacy education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Rachal, J.R. (1986). Freedom’s crucible: William T. Richardson and the schooling of the freedmen. Adult Education Quarterly, 37(1), 14-22.