There were fears among slave owners and colonialists that if the enslaved are given the opportunity to read and write, chances of them plotting revolt and running away from plantations could be high.
In the wake of these impediments, the enslaved had to hide to learn how to read and write. It was illegal for slaves to assemble and attempt to improve their literacy in the English language, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia.
In the early 1800s, the laws prohibiting slaves from reading and writing were even tightened despite heightened advocacy by missionaries. The percentage of the enslaved who could read and write was in the range of 10 percent. This percentage only inched up a little higher after freed slaves began setting up schools after the American Civil War between 1862 and 1865. It is some of these interventions that improved literacy from 30 percent to 70 percent by 1910.
The only opportunity at the disposal of the enslaved in Virginia to improve their literacy was to do it on their own terms or at the request of their owners. But, prior to the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783, the enslaved were reading and writing through religious bodies.
Many slave owners perceived the grooming of slaves in Christianity as a religious obligation, and reading and writing were seen as effective channels to enable the enslaved to learn Catholic customs. Notable religious leaders such as Anglican Bishop Edmund Gibson and Minister Dr. Thomas Bray among others have contributed in diverse ways to improve literacy among the enslaved.
Though legislators in Virginia were not against these interventions by the church, they placed impediments in the way of slaves accessing basic education. The increasing literacy among the enslaved can largely be attributed to the role of religious institutions and their parastatals.
This was possible because the religious leaders saw this as an obligation and an important vehicle in their drive to convert African Americans to Christianity. Religious historians said evangelism and catechism faced hurdles with low literacy among the enslaved, so some level of literacy was needed to facilitate the teachings of new converts.
Slave owners were deeply concerned with the fast-growing percentage of enslaved accessing freedom through baptism. Laws endorsed an enslaved person to be granted their freedom once they are baptized. A classical case is the one involving Elizabeth Key who gained her freedom in 1656 after the court ruled that she is free once she is baptized.
Many slave owners became reluctant to allow the enslaved to read the Bible following the ruling by the court over fears many slaves would take advantage to get baptized to buy their freedom. The bigger impact of this literacy drive among the enslaved compelled legislators to introduce two laws.
The first was the freedom of the enslaved since 1662 was no longer tied to baptism but freedom to the condition of the mother. The law empowered slave owners to draw the frontiers of how far the enslaved could participate in religious activities. These hurdles motivated slaves not to only learn how to read, but, to tutor themselves on how to write as well.
The General Assembly in 1680 passed new laws to prohibit freed slaves to consider themselves free without written certificates from their owners.
Slaves were considered to be deserters and subjected to 20 lashes if they did not get a written certificate declaring them free.