After Slavery: Educator Resources

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9. Illiteracy, Competence and the Difficulty of Building a Bi-Racial Party

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Ten: Freedpeople and the Republican Party in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Among the many faults charged to southern Republicans by white conservatives was the Party's elevation of poor and barely literate men—mostly black—to office under Reconstruction. Southern elites expressed outrage that, as they frequently put it, men of "intelligence and wealth" were being governed by their former slaves, many without any formal education. It was a dubious assertion on many levels: blacks never dominated state government, even in states like South Carolina where they were a majority; of those who did hold office, a large proportion had never been slaves, or at least had never worked in the fields alongside plantation laborers; and even among officeholding ex-slaves, some had acquired basic literacy through their own efforts. Coming from conservative elites, the assertion was a malicious one, calculated to undermine the legitimacy of Reconstruction.

The uneven spread of literacy among freedpeople did pose practical problems for Republicans committed to building a bi-racial coalition, however. As the document below suggests, relentless pressure placed Republicans on the defensive. Given the shortage of literate freedmen able to hold office, one solution was to cooperate with sympathetic or moderate whites. But what were Republicans to do when native whites refused to take part in bi-racial government? A black former trial justice from Winnsboro, South Carolina (refugeed at the time in Columbia) gave the following interview to the Congressional Committee investigating Ku Klux Klan activities.

Illiteracy, Competence and the Difficulty of Building a Bi-Racial Party

Q: Are not most, if not all, of the county officers colored men?
A: All but a few men. The school commissioner is a white man.

Q: Had you any education while a slave?
A: A little; not much-very little.

Q: As to your other office-holders in that county, how is it?
A: They were all slaves too.

Q: Are there not many of these officers who are really incapable of fulfilling the duties of these offices?
A: I can say only what I hear. I hear a great deal of complaint, saying that they are incompetent.

[An interesting section follows in which the interviewee talks about having been a trial justice for two years, until they "did away with magistrates throughout the State"]

Q: Can [officials] read and write?
A: There is not one in the county but what can read and write.

. . .

Q: Do they generally try to get educated, intelligent men?
A: We get the best we can all the time.

Q: Why do you colored people not get white people there to fill your offices?
A: We tried that at the last election. We asked them to accept the positions; they said they would not accept a vote or a nomination from any ignorant colored man.

Q: Did they expect to elect officers without the votes of the colored people?
A: They did.

Q: Did they know you had a majority?
A: They did.

Q: How did they expect to get along?
A: They knew we did not have sense enough to carry it out ourselves, and they did not suppose anybody else would come in to assist us.

Q: Did anybody come?
A: Yes, sir... Northern men came and established Leagues all about, and we gained information from them.

Q: Did any native whites join your party at Fairfield?
A: Four or five; that is about all.

Source: Testimony of Henry Johnson, July 3, 1871, Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States [South Carolina], Washington, D. C., 1872: 322-3.


Questions to Consider

  1. Does literacy matter in a democratic society? In what ways? How might freedmen account for the low levels of literacy among ex-slaves? How might their opponents explain the same?

  2. What do you suppose whites intended to accomplish by refusing to serve in bi-racial local governments? Did they succeed?

  3. Johnson is asked how whites expected to carry an election while they were a minority, and replies that whites "knew we did not have sense enough to carry it out ourselves." What does he mean by this?

  4. Johnson gives important testimony here regarding the role played by "northern men," often denigrated as self-interested "carpetbaggers" by white conservatives. How does Johnson's testimony complicate our understanding of them?

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