Literacy as FreedomAs we look upon this young black man reading a Bible, one question that comes to mind iswhether or not the subject is an enslaved person. If he is a free man in the North, it would belegal for him to read at this time in 1863. But what if he is not free? Or what if he is a free blackman residing in a slave state? The issue of literacy among blacks during the Civil War was acomplicated one. Before the 1830s there were few restrictions on teaching slaves to read andwrite. After the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, all slave states except Maryland,Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write. For example, in1831 and 1832 statues were passed in Virginia prohibiting meetings to teach free blacks to reador write and instituting a fine of 10 – 100 for teaching enslaved blacks.The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included the following law “[S31] Any person who shallattempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon convictionthereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than twohundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.” Atthis time, Harpers Weekly published an article that stated “thealphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a peopleenslaved refuse to teach them to read.” There was fear thatslaves who were literate could forge travel passes and escape.These passes, signed by the slave owner, were required forenslaved people traveling from one place to another andusually included the date on which the slave was supposed toreturn. There was also fear that writing could be a means ofcommunication that would make it easier to planinsurrections and mass escapes.Slave narratives from many sources tell us how manySunday Morning, ca. 1877, Thomasenslaved people became educated. Some learned to readWaterman Wood, oil on paperboard,from other literate slaves, while at other times a master orSmithsonian American Art Museummistress was willing to teach a slave in defiance of the laws.Former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was taught the alphabet in secret atage twelve by his master’s wife, Sophia Auld. As he grew older Douglass took charge of his owneducation, obtaining and reading newspapers and books in secret. He was often quotedasserting that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass was one of thefew literate slaves who regularly taught others how to read. Younger slaves frequently listenedoutside school houses where their masters’ children were learning. Enslaved people who were
caught reading or writing were severely punished, as were their teachers. In every instancethese slaves and those who taught them undertook a profound risk, which for many wassurmounted by the individual’s passion, commitment and imagination.The following are two telling examples of slave narratives that discuss how slaves becameliterate. This first account is from James Fisher of Nashville, Tennessee, who relayed his story in1843:I . . . thought it wise to learn to write, in case opportunity should offer to write myself apass. I copied every scrap of writing I could find, and thus learned to write a tolerablehand before I knew what the words were that I was copying. At last, I found an old manwho, for the sake of money to buy whisky, agreed to reach me the writing alphabet, andset up copying. I spent a good deal of time trying to improve myself; secretly, of course.One day, my mistress happened to come into my room, when my materials were about;and she told her father (old Capt. Davis) that I was learning to write. He replied, that if Ibelonged to him, he would cut my right hand off.Artist Eastman Johnson was active in the abolitionist movement in the 1860s, so it is plausiblethat he read slave narratives that demonstrated the importance of literacy and, specifically, thereading of the Bible to slaves and former slaves. One possible source Johnson might have comeacross was the narrative of former slave James Curry, published in the abolitionist newspaperThe Liberator on January 10, 1840. Curry recalls his quest to learn to read:My master’s oldest son was six months older than I. He went to a day school, and as Ihad a great desire to learn to read, I prevailed upon him to teach me. My motherprocured me a spelling-book. (Before Nat Turner’s insurrection, a slave in ourneighborhood might buy a spelling or hymn-book, but now he cannot). I got so I couldread a little, when my master found it out, and forbad his son to teach me any more. As Ihad got the start, however, I kept on reading and studying, and from that time till I cameaway, I always had a book somewhere about me, and if I got an opportunity, I would bereading in it. Indeed, I have a book now, which I brought all the way from NorthCarolina. I borrowed a hymn-book, and learned the hymns by heart. My uncle had aBible, which he lent me, and I studied the Scriptures. When my master’s family were allgone away on the Sabbath, I used to go into the house and get down the great Bible,and lie down in the piazza, and read, taking care, however, to put it back before theyreturned. There I learned that it was contrary to the revealed will of God, that one manshould hold another as a slave. I had always heard it talked among slaves, that we oughtnot to be held as slaves; that our forefathers and mothers were stolen from Africa,
where they were free men and free women. But in the Bible I learned that ‘God hathmade of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.’Slave Education and the Union ArmyIn the effort to forge a new identity after their emancipation, former slaves realized that thekey to empowerment was literacy. Slaves who tended to young white children, helping to dressthem and carry their books to school, watched as they grew into successful adults andwitnessed firsthand the benefits of an education. The lack of reading and writing capabilitieswas frustrating for many as it hampered the ability to do such simple things as record amarriage or the birth of a child. With emancipation came the chance for freed blacks to acquirethe education they had been denied. Eastman Johnson’s painting of a freed black man readingthe Bible personifies that chance that all newly freed African Americans had to take in order tobuild a new life. The quest for literacy was especially important to adult blacks as once theylearned how to read, they could then teach their children, producing a new generation ofeducated freed African Americans.Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern whites helped newly freed blacks toconstruct schools and served as teachers. In Arkansas, a visiting teacher tasked with teachingblack soldiers to read and write, recalled that the soldiers "seem to feel the importance oflearning and study very hard, helping themselves along very much." Others observed that sincetheir emancipation, "one of the most gratifying facts developed by the recent change in theircondition is, that they very generally desire instruction, and many seize every opportunity inintervals of labor to obtain it.” Their determination to obtain literacy was so great that for manyit ranked as high as necessities like food and shelter.Many black soldiers also became part of a movement to educate former slaves. They advocatedfor the building of schools and the opportunity for others to learn. The soldiers knew that theywould need to construct new lives, and education was the key to achieving that goal. Blacksoldier John Sweeney attested:We have never Had an institutiong [sic] of that sort and we Stand deeply inneed [sic] ofinstruction the majority of us having been slaves. We Wish to have some benefit ofeducation To make of ourselves capable of buisness [sic] In the future. . . . We wish tobecome a People capable of self support as we are Capable of being soldiers. . . . But SirWhat we want is a general system of education In our regiment for our moral andliterary elevation.” Literate black soldiers also helped to instruct illiterate soldiers to readand write when teachers were not available.
For African Americans, freedom was not something that was gained overnight; for manyfreedom came with the Emancipation Proclamation, for others it came when they escaped inthe middle of the night and crossed into Union territory, yet for some it occurred when theydonned the blue uniform of the Union Army. The army gave freedmen a purpose. Not onlywere they fighting for their personal right to exist, but also for the country they were indebtedto. That they fought and died for the United States only solidified their claims that AfricanAmericans deserved equal rights and citizenship. Frederick Douglass argued that "Liberty wonby white men would lose half its lustre.” Douglass believed that black military service and blackAmerican citizenship were inextricably linked; "Once let the black man in . . . an eagle on hisbutton, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earthwhich can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”Life as a black Union soldier was not at all what many had envisioned; in fact, former slaves hadsome of the worst jobs in the army. They were often relegated to menial jobs, such as diggingditches or clearing away dead bodies and paid much less than their white counterparts. Thoughthey were less likely to be killed in action, black soldiers were much more likely to succumb todiseases and bacterial infections at camp because of the tasks assigned to them. Writing toSecretary of War Edwin Stanton, a black soldier objected to the inequality stating, "We havecome out like men and we Expected to be Treated as men but we have bin [sic] Treated moreLike Dogs then [sic] men." Additionally, if they were captured they were not seen as prisonersof war in the eyes of the Confederacy, but as property. Due to this Southern policy, the Unionhad no recourse for a prisoner exchange. Black soldiers were sent back to the states from whichthey came to either be thrown back into slavery or executed. Despite these risks, a total of186,000 blacks served in the Union army during the Civil War which accounted for one tenth ofthe army's total forces. Tellingly, half of those soldiers originated from a proslavery Southernstate.Literacy and FaithFor African Americans religion and the Christian church was, and continues to be, a unifying andenduring force within the black community. Faith and freedom were strongly intertwined.Blacks considered emancipation the beginning of their exodus out of bondage, and theChristian church became a primary focus in the lives of African Americans. DuringReconstruction, the expansion and prosperity of black churches stood as a symbol of blackprogress to naysayers who believed the emancipated slaves could not and would not be able toorganize and become productive citizens. Church congregations also provided a support systemagainst poverty and outside discrimination and gave hope to the masses that conditions wouldimprove for the formally-enslaved population. Church-affiliated societies and youth groups
were created in order to support, instill, andenforce family values and religious ideals.Churches often provided blacks their first taste ofcivic independence. As self-governing institutions,their administration was tended to by their blackparishioners, providing the opportunity for blacksto hold positions of leadership. Perhaps mostimportantly, churches served as educationalinstitutions by encouraging literacy through thereading of the Bible.The title of this artwork, The Lord is My Shepherd,references a phrase taken directly from the Biblein the Book of Psalms. Psalm 23 draws an analogy between a shepherd and his flock of sheep toGod and his children, mankind. Eastman Johnson cleverly converts the phrase for use in acontemporary context, suggesting that God, or more likely the Union, will lead the enslavedpopulation out of bondage. This is the likeliest meaning of the picture, but it receives the leastattention.The Lord Is My Shepherd (detail), 1863, Eastman Johnson, oilon wood, Smithsonian American Art MuseumAnother theory proposes that perhaps the man is not reading from Psalms, which occurs in themiddle of the Bible. Instead, he may be reading a passage from the front of the Bible where onefinds the Book of Exodus with its powerful message, “let my people go.” Union soldier A.B.Randall reported in 1865 that "The Colord [sic] People here, generally consider, this war notonly; their exodus, from bondage; but the road, to Responsibility; Competency; and honorableCitizenship." That Randall chooses to use the word exodus tells us that the parallel between theplight of the enslaved black population and that of the Jews in Egypt was a common, wellknown reference. Indeed, parallels can be drawn between Biblical figures and contemporaryfigures; Pharaoh and Southern plantation overseers, Moses and abolitionist leaders likeSojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.Relation to the ArtworkFollowing the cleaning and conservation of The Lord is My Shepherd, it was revealed that theblanket the man sits on is blue in color, which makes it possible that the blanket is a UnitedStates Army-issued blanket. A resulting theory proposes that this man could be “contraband,” aslave who escaped to the North and became allied with the Union army. These slaves wereoften taught to read by Union soldiers and they in turn taught other slaves to read. The mancould also be representative of one of the first members of the United States Colored Troops,
an all-black regiment of the Union army formed in 1863, which is the same year this artworkwas painted. Regardless of the man’s status, to quote American Art museum curator EleanorJones Harvey, “the idea of determination, of initiative . . . the idea of taking your future intoyour own hands becomes a central part of Eastman Johnson’s narrative of the American C