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In Their Own Words

March 20, 1839

Fanny Kemble Journal Entry on Slave Wanting to Read

From St. Simons Island, Fanny Kemble Butler wrote in her journal of the final days of her visit to our husband’s plantation. The English actress was opposed to slavery and during her visit continually tried to help the slaves (despite her husband’s opposition):

“… I have been delighted, surprised, and the very least perplexed, by the sudden petition on the part of our young waiter [and slave] Aleck, that I will teach him to read. He is a very intelligent lad of about sixteen, and preferred his request with an urgent humility that was very touching. I told him I would think about it. I mean to do it. I will do it; and yet, it is simply breaking the laws of the government under which I am living. Unrighteous laws are made to be broken - perhaps - but then, you see, I am a woman, and Mr. [Pierce Butler, her husband] stands between me and the penalty. If I were a man, I would do that and many a thing besides, and doubtless should be shot some fine day from behind a tree by some good neighbor, who would do the community a service by quietly getting rid of mischievous incendiary; and I promise you in such a case, no questions would be asked, and my lessons would come to a speedy and silent end; but teaching slaves to read in a finable offense, and I am feme couverte [a married woman], and my fines must be paid by my legal owner, and the first offense of the sort is heavily fined, and the second more heavily fined, and for the third, one is sent to prison. What a pity it is I can’t begin with Aleck’s third lesson, because going to prison can’t be done by proxy, and that penalty would light upon the right shoulders! I certainly intend to teach Aleck to read. I certainly won’t tell Mr. [Butler] anything about it… .I’ll teach Aleck to ready, for nobody is here to see, at least nobody whose seeing I mind; and I’ll teach every other creature that wants to learn. I haven’t much more than a week to remain in this blessed purgatory; in that last week perhaps I may teach the boy enough to go on along when I am gone.”

Source: John A. Scott (ed.), Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 271-272.