The Sentencing of Mrs. Douglass for Teaching Negro Children to Read
1853 Norfolk, Virginia
Judge Baker awards maximum punishment to foster respect for Virginia slave code
….Upon an indictment found against you for assembling with negroes to instruct them to read and write, and for associating with them in an unlawful assembly, you were found guilty, and a mere nominal fine imposed……The Court is not called on to vindicate the policy of the law in question, for so long as it remains upon the statute book, and unrepealed, public and private justice and morality require that it should be respected and sustained. There are persons, I believe, in our community, opposed to the policy of the law in question. They profess to believe that universal intellectual culture is necessary to religious instruction and education, and that such culture is suitable to a state of slavery; and there can be no misapprehension as to your opinion on the subject, judging from the indiscreet freedom with which you spoke of your regard of the colored race in general. Such opinions in the present state of our society I regard as manifestly mischievous. It is not true that our slaves cannot be taught religious and moral duty, without being able to read the Bible and use the pen……
A valuable report of document recently published in the city of New York by the Southern Aid Society sets forth many valuable and important truths upon the condition of the Southern slaves, and the utility of moral and religious instruction, apart from a knowledge of books. I recommend the careful perusal of it all whose opinions concur with your own. It shows that a system of catechetical instruction, with a clear and simple exposition of Scripture, has been employed with gratifying success; that the slaves of the South are peculiarly susceptible of good religious influences. Their mere residence among a Christian people has wrought a great and happy change in their condition: they have been raised from the night of heathenism to the light of Christianity, and thousands of them have been brought to a saving knowledge of the Gospel.
Of the one hundred millions of the negro race, there cannot be found another so large a body as the three millions of slaves in the United States, at once so intelligent, so inclined to the Gospel, and so blessed by the elevating influence of civilization and Christianity. Occasional instances of cruelty and oppression, it is true, may sometimes occur, and probably will ever continue to take place under any system of laws; but this is not confined to wrongs committed upon the negro; wrongs are committed and cruelty practiced in a like degree by the lawless white man upon his own color; and while the negroes of our own town and State are known to be surrounded by most of the substantial comforts of life, and invited by precept and example to participate in proper, moral and religious duties, it argues, it seems to me, a sickly sensibility towards them to say their persons, and feelings, and interests are not sufficiently respected by our laws,……
…….The first legislative provision upon this subject was introduced in the year 1831, immediately succeeding the bloody scenes of the memorable Southampton insurrection; and that law being not found sufficiently penal to check the wrongs complained of, was reenacted with additional penalties in the year of 1848, which last mentioned act, after several years’ trial and experience, has been re-affirmed by adoption, and incorporated into our present code. After these several and repeated recognitions of the wisdom and propriety of the said act, it may well be said that bold and open opposition to it is a matter not to be slightly regarded…….
There have been no occasion for such enactments in Virginia, or elsewhere, on the subject of negro education, but as a manner of self-defense against the schemes of Northern incendiaries, and the outcry against holding our slaves in bondage. Many now living remember how, and when, and why the anti-slavery fury began, and by what means its manifestations were made public. Our mails were clogged with abolition pamphlets and inflammatory documents, to be distributed among our Southern negroes to induce them to cut our throats….These, however, were not the only means resorted to by the Northern fanatics to stir up insubordination among our slaves. They scattered far and near pocket handkerchiefs, and other similar articles, with frightful engravings, and printed over with anti-slavery nonsense, with the view to work upon the feeling and ignorance of our negroes…..Under such circumstances there was but one measure of protection for the South, and that was adopted.
….In vindication of the policy and justness of our laws, which every individual should be taught to respect, the judgment of the Court is, in addition to the proper fine and costs, that you be imprisoned for the period of one month…….
Blog Host Note: The 1831 Southampton insurrection the judge is referring to? Clicking on this link will explain fully why this slave code was enacted.
Article taken from The Negro Heritage Library: The Winding Road to Freedom (1965)
A Documentary Survey of Negro Experiences in America
Edited by Alfred E. Cain
Note: all articles are typed verbatim – exactly as printed in the book.