Bringing Literacy to Former Slaves

  • Education
  • 1868

Until the end of the Civil War it was against the law in Southern states to teach even the alphabet to any African American. Thus only about 5 percent of slaves, and a little more than half of free blacks, including those in the North, could read. As soon as the war was over, philanthropic groups launched multiple efforts to overcome this lack of education.

For instance, the Freewill Baptist Home Mission Society sent organizers and funds to the Shenandoah valley where thousands of released slaves had congregated after the fighting. Rev. Nathan Brackett realized that the only way to reach the large number of potential students was to train African Americans to become teachers and then disperse them across the South. He began to transform a grammar school he was operating in Harper’s Ferry into a teaching college.

The president of Bates College learned of that effort at about the same time a Maine philanthropist named John Storer approached him and offered $10,000 to create a college anywhere in the South that would be open to all races and both sexes. The connection was made, and Storer’s gift was matched by funds from Baptist churches and the state of West Virginia. By 1868, Storer Normal School was minting African-American teachers—the only such operation in all of West Virginia.

The institution gradually evolved into Storer College, offering industrial training as well as teacher instruction. It closed in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared an end to segregated education. But thanks to it and other philanthropically supported efforts, black illiteracy had by then been driven down to 8 percent.