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Posted January 3, 2006
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Editorial Observer/ BRENT STAPLES
Why Slave-Era Barriers to Black Literacy Still Matter

Those of us who write about our families inevitably engage in conversations with the dead. The two specters who take up most of my time these days were black, slave-era founders of the Staples family line. My great-grandfather John Wesley Staples, of whom I have often written, was conceived in the waning days of the Civil War, narrowly missed being born a slave and died just 11 years before my birth. His mother, Somerville Staples, was enslaved in the home of a prominent Virginia doctor when she became pregnant with John Wesley, her last child and the first freeborn member of the Staples clan.

My great-grandfather and his mother were barely visible against the backdrop of the 19th-century South when I first started to focus on them about 15 years ago. Since then, the outlines of their lives have become steadily clearer, thanks to remembrances from elderly relatives and documents that have recently turned up in the public record. It will take years, perhaps even decades, to flesh them out fully. But it is already clear that their 21st-century descendants stand heavily in their debt and that my career as a writer would have been much less likely - and perhaps even impossible - without them.

My older uncles, some of whom practically grew up in John Wesley's house, regaled me with tales of his wealth and his taste for fancy cars - and the fierceness with which he responded to white Southerners who crossed him. But the most crucial fact about my great-grandfather, it seems to me, was that he could read, write and calculate fairly well - even though he was born in 1865, when, thanks to the policies of enslavement, fewer than 1 in 10 black Southerners could read.

Literate black people were not immune to the mob violence and intensifying racism that greeted all African-Americans after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the ability to read and write gave them a vantage point on their circumstances and protected them from swindlers who regularly stripped illiterate people of land and other assets. For these families, literacy was a form of social capital that could be passed from one generation to the next. By contrast, nonliterate families were disproportionately vulnerable to the Jim Crow policies and social exploitation that often locked them out of the American mainstream for generations on end.



The ability to read and write was a most crucial legacy.


The connection between black literacy in the 19th century and present-day professional success is a touchy subject, as is the entire issue of class distinctions among black Americans. Even so, the advantages that accrued to the early literate classes would be clearly evident during the 20th century. In the 1940's, for example, the sociologist E. Horace Fitchett surveyed students at Howard University, then the seat of the black elite. Half of his respondents claimed to be descended from that small part of the black population that was free before Emancipation, which typically had greater access to education. Similarly, in 1963, the sociologist Horace Mann Bond wrote: "I have ... been astonished to discover how largely the 10 percent of Negroes who were free in 1860 have dominated the production of Negro professionals (and intellectuals) up to the present day." The black intellectual and professional classes have grown significantly since then. But studies of those groups today would probably show a strong relationship between early emancipation and membership in the present-day black elite.

Not all of the 20th-century intellectuals Bond encountered had come from the free classes, however. Some were descendants of well-situated house slaves who had experienced close contact with the white elites of the day and who had had early opportunities to be educated. As a slave serving in the home of a doctor, John Wesley's mother, Somerville, would have been among those black women who had access to books and the conversation of cultured whites, and who knew that literacy marked the crucial distinction between the free and the enslaved. John Wesley might have attended an early school. But he could just as easily have learned to read and write in the household where his mother had been enslaved and where she continued to live for several years after Emancipation.

Thus prepared, my great-grandfather and his wife, Eliza, moved the family swiftly from the shadows of slavery into the educated, landholding classes. By the 1890's, John Wesley had quit a job at a railroad and was running a successful farm that grew tomatoes for a nearby cannery. By the turn of the 20th century, he had joined with two neighbors to hire a teacher and build the one-room school where their children were educated. Soon afterward he bought his flashy Model T Ford and began to amass the pot of cash that he would leave behind when he died.

Enamored of the patriarch, my uncles absorbed his swagger and his aphoristic style of speech - and later passed them on to my generation. My uncle Paul also recalled the vanity that John Wesley displayed when he sat down to write. He penned even grocery notes with a flourish, pausing often to lick the pencil point. His gestures said: When you remember me to people, tell them I could read and write.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, OPINION, of Sunday, January 1, 2006., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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