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In Their Own Words

February 17, 1839

Fanny Kemble Diary Entry on Slaves Wanting to Read

After a six-week visit to his rice plantation on Butler Island, Pierce Butler moved his family to his sea island cotton plantation on the northern end of St. Simons Island on Feb. 16. His wife, Fanny Kemble Butler, recorded the reaction of the slaves on Butler Island to her leaving, as well as her impression of the desire of slaves to read:

“… At every moment one or other of the poor people rushed in upon me to bid me good-by; many of their farewells were grotesque enough, some were pathetic, and all of them made me very sad. Poor people! how little I have done, how little I can do for them.

“I had a long talk with that interesting and excellent man, cooper London [a slave], who made an earnest petition that I would send him from the North a lot of Bibles and Prayer Books; certainly the science of reading must be much more common among the Negroes than I supposed, or London must look to a marvelously increased spread of the same hereafter. There is, however, considerable reticence upon this point, or else the poor slaves must consider the mere possession of the holy books as good for salvation and as effectual for spiritual assistance to those who cannot as to those who can comprehend them. Since the news of our departure has spread, I have had repeated eager entreaties for presents of Bibles and Prayer Books, and to my demurrer of ‘But you can’t read, can you/’ have generally received for answer a reluctant acknowledgment of ignorance, which, however, did not always convince me of the fact. In my farewell conversation with London I found it impossible to get him to tell me how had learned to read: the penalties for teaching them are very severe – heavy fines, increasing in amount for the first and second offense, and imprisonment for the third. Such a man as London is certainly aware that to teach the slaves to read is an illegal act, and he may have been unwilling to betray whoever had been his preceptor even to my knowledge; at any rate, I got no answers from him but: ‘Well, missis, me learn; well, missis, me try’; and finally: ‘Well, missis, me ‘spose Heave help me’; to which I could only reply that I knew Heaven was helpful, very very hardly to the tune of teaching folks their letters. I got no satisfaction… .”

Source: John A. Scott, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 193-194.