While fact checking a YouTube video last night, I stumbled across a blurb that was more compelling than the original reason for the search. There was only the statement, “90 Negroes arrested for learning”. The isolated tidbit of information was gleaned from a Richmond, Virginia newspaper that was printed in 1858. I couldn’t find any other information about that particular incident, except that it happened in August of 1858.
The fact that people were arrested for teaching slaves and that slaves were arrested for learning is not new historical information. Many of us learned about this in high school level American history classes. It was the short reminder on the Web that jogged my memory about this happening in the Antebellum South.
What comes immediately to mind when we hear that people are prohibited from learning, is that a group of humans are being oppressed and/or exploited. People are much easier to control when we are kept ignorant. We are set forth on the path to liberation when somebody is so curious that she or he takes the risk to learn forbidden knowledge. It takes great courage to seek knowledge and for a member of the mainstream society to teach oppressed people.
Personally, I consider free inquiry to be a basic human right. Anybody who wishes to satisfy her or his curiosity should be allowed to do so. We curious people feel a sense of claustrophobia when we are restricted from learning. One of my most frightening nightmares involves drowning in the sea of willful ignorance.
Whenever a tyrannical regime moves to consolidate power, one of its first moves is to attack and eliminate the intelligentsia within the nation. Lists of forbidden works of literature and art are compiled, books are burned either figuratively or actually. Intelligence is denigrated and ignorance is elevated in status. Disseminating information that is contrary to the political or religious dogma of the regime is harshly punished.
Because knowledge is power, the slave owners knew that they could not allow the people they owned to learn how to read and to write. In the Antebellum South, ignorance equaled financial prosperity for the elite. Informed slaves would not remain slaves for very long.
How dreadful life would become if the scientific method was assigned to the trash heap. How dull would the world feel if we were limited to contemplate it only within the bounds of an officially approved belief system. It is the imposition of carefully controlled knowledge and beliefs that dictatorship, plutocracy, theocracy and other forms of tyranny gain and maintain their grip on society.
It’s not difficult to see why and how people are still being arrested for learning in the world today. Such conditions could easily happen in America and the west because we are not particularly vigilant and protective of our natural rights to learn and understand.
That is why the arrest of 90 slaves who broke the law by learning was a major violation of human rights. The incident should have had more news coverage than just a few lines printed in a regional newspaper. Perhaps widespread knowledge of the subversive act of educating slaves would threaten the institution of slavery itself, so not much was allowed to be said about the arrests. There are more questions than answers about why the 90 slaves were arrested for learning.
What happened to the 90 unfortunate people? How were they punished? What further restrictions were placed upon them? What were the consequences to the individuals who taught the 90 people? I cannot think of any positive scenarios regarding the incident.
Less than three years after the story was printed, our nation would become embroiled in the Civil War. A war waged, in part, to battle ignorance.