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African American Education in Colonial Berks County - Woven With Words


Greg King


In Berks County in the eighteenth century, an African American man (free, slave, or indentured) was likely to know several languages.  He was probably literate, and he almost certainly knew a trade other than picking cotton.  Indeed, to the frugal farmers and squires of southeastern Pennsylvania, anything less would have been an inefficient use of human capital.  Moreover, slave owners had little fear that educating slaves would cause them to rebel, given that whites outnumbered slaves 464 to one in 1790 (Johnson 1971-72, 8).  An educated slave was a more profitable slave, plain and simple.


Since the first organized education for African Americans in Berks County did not exist until the 1830s, slaves in colonial Berks County did not go to school.  Rather, their education rested largely in the hands of slave owners.  Whether a slave would end up being trained on a farm, learning the fine art of charcoal making at an iron furnace, or blacksmithing in rural Berks depended very much on his master’s wishes.


A slave’s “education” was informal and not unlike that of any other person of the time.  A slave owner in Berks County was not afraid to teach his slaves, for a slave’s value to the master increased correspondingly.  A slave who understood farming was more help on the farm.  A slave who was taught carpentry was more profitable the carpenter.  The slave who could read and figure could help with the administrative necessities of a business.


A male slave’s language skills depended largely upon his master’s language and work.  In the South, a slave owner did not have much need to communicate with more than a few select slaves.  In Berks County, where a slave owner usually owned no more than two or three slaves (two to work on the farm and one house slave to help his wife), communication was absolutely essential.  Indeed, slaves were integral players in the daily routine of both work and home life.  Moreover, a slave who could speak and write English was a boon to his master.  The slave could be sent on errands and could go about the town with little trouble, or he could be rented out to others for a nice profit.  A slave with no language skills was not much use outside of his strong arms and tough back.  Because German was the predominant spoken language in Berks County, slave owners often taught their slaves German, and there are instances of slaves speaking three or four languages fluently.


Advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers for runaway slaves often included phrases such as “speaks good English” and “he can read and figure;” it was much more rare to see one that stated “he don’t speak much English.”  Other advertisements from the time read “knows good German” or “he can speak passable French” (Smith and Wojtowicz 1989).  It is clear that African Americans were taught to learn language and to use it well (Johnson 1971-72, 10).


Because the majority of slaves in Berks County did not labor on subsistence farms or in small shops, but worked in the larger industries of the day, they needed training in a trade (Johnson 1971-72, 10).  Many times the slave owner himself was a master tradesman.  A carpenter in Port Clinton might have a shop with a few employees and one or two slaves.  Sometimes slaves would work right alongside the others and sometimes they would be left to more menial tasks.  But it is certain that a slave in a carpentry shop was much more useful if he was educated as a carpenter than if he could do little more than carry wood (Johnson 1971-72). Occasionally, a slave would be trained well enough that he could work unsupervised and could be hired out to do work in the town or in neighboring towns.  This provided a decent source of income for the slave owner, as well as serving to further his name in his business.


Some slaves entered a formal apprenticeship process.  Although this was uncommon, there were no legal barriers to it in Pennsylvania.  African Americans were much more likely to be apprentices in the late in the eighteenth century, as the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery came into effect (Shaeffer 1941, 112).  It is interesting to note that free African Americans were usually not discriminated against in the apprenticeship process.  Slaves entering apprenticeships were usually being trained so that their masters could rent out their services, for hiring out a journeyman slave would have been profitable (Johnson 1971-72, 10).


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