The Importance of Education for African Americans in the 19th Century

By Andres Rodriguez

Manual Labor requires strength, patience and more importantly obedience. The least required asset for manual labor is to be educated. Slave owners in America had the same requirements. Slave owners would search and acquire slaves that were very physically strong, and very obedient.  They did not care if the slave was able to read and write, they only cared about the physical attributes of that slave. The question that I want to know is why do slave owners want their “property” to be the least educated? If a slave was able to read and write than they can be utilized to do specific tasks, like write a letter for their masters and be able to go into town to do tasks that requires more of their knowledge in order to accomplish. Slave owners thought the exact opposite.

 “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”  –Narrative of the Frederick Douglass (33)

This was said by one of Frederick Douglass’ former master when he found out Frederick was being educated. Frederick Douglas was born into slavery in February 1818 in Maryland. He is notorious for being a self-taught slave who escaped and began his career as a writer, abolitionist and statesman. Frederick Douglass realized that if he could gain enough education, he could escape slavery forever. Slaves that are least educated can be controlled better which would lower the risk of one trying to escape. A slave who does not know of anything other than work, will end up working until they die. Frederick Douglass gained enough education, through the most unthinkable ways possible, and figured out a way to escape for a third time and was successful. What does this say about the importance of education? Frederick Douglass realized that if someone can read and write, they could expand their knowledge and be bound by nothing! He proved that his education helped him get out slavery forever.

Frederick Douglass

Portrait of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass has proved that his education helped him escape slavery but what happens after he is freed and starts his writing career? Is he seen, respected and treated the same as his white-counter parts? Equality seemed to be a non-existent term in 19th century America until Henry O. Flipper made history.

Henry O. Flipper

Henry O. Flipper as a Cadet in West Point Academy

Henry O. Flipper was the first African American man to graduate from West Point. This was no easy task for any “colored” man to accomplish, especially in 19th century America. He accomplished this impossible task by his merits, determination, respect, and most importantly his education. He was not the only “colored” person in the academy…. four others joined him but unfortunately, they failed to pass their examinations throughout the years.

“My own success answers most conclusively the first question, and changes the nature of the other. Was it, then, color or actual deficiency that caused the dismissal of all former colored cadets? I shall not venture to reply more than to say my opinion is deducible from what I have said elsewhere in my narrative. However, my correspondent agrees with me that color is of no consequence in considering the question of equality socially. My friends, he says, gain an important point in the argument for equal rights. It will be in this wise, viz., that want of education, want of the proof of equality of intellect, is the obstacle, and not color. And the only way to get this proof is to get education, and not by “war of races.” Equal rights must be a consequence of this proof, and not something existing before it. Equal rights will come in due time, civil rights bill, war of races, or anything of that kind to the contrary not- withstanding.” The Colored Cadet at West Point (184)

Henry Flipper realized his hard-work in the classroom allowed him to excel in his classes. His merits were the reason why he was able to graduate from West Point. He also stated that equal rights will come in time. He realizes that his graduation from West Point proves that education can bring a sense of equality in America. This cannot happen overnight but he realizes that it will happen over time. Flipper experienced a sense of equality by one his former classmates.

“One winter’s night, while on guard in barracks during supper, a cadet of the next class above my own stopped on my post and conversed with me as long as it was safe to do so. He expressed–as all have who have spoken to me–great regret that I should be so isolated, asked how I got along in my studies, and many other like questions. He spoke at great length of my general treatment. He assured me that he was wholly unprejudiced, and would ever be a friend. He even went far enough to say, to my great astonishment, that he cursed me and my race among the cadets to keep up appearances with them, and that I must think none the less well of him for so doing. It was a sort of necessity, he said, for he would not only be “cut,” but would be treated a great deal worse than I was if he should fraternize with me. Upon leaving me he said, “I’m d–d sorry to see you come here to be treated so, but I am glad to see you stay.” – The Colored Cadet at West Point (142-143)

Henry’s fellow classmate, who is white, realizes he cannot speak to him due his fear of being punished but he compliments Henry’s hard-work and determination and is even glad to see Henry at West Point. Even though his classmate is afraid to be seen talking and complimenting him, this indicates great progress towards equality in America. Education proves to be a vital and important asset for a “colored” individual living in 19th century America.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Frederick Douglass. Boston. 1845.

Flipper, Henry O. The Colored Cadet at West Point. New York. 1878. 



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