Formal and Informal Education
Douglass, Washington and DuBois all desired to learn, but each seems to have had different motives for doing so. The literacy struggle of Douglass is perhaps the most interesting, for he never had any formal schooling at any level. Born in a slave society committed to compulsory Black ignorance and illiteracy, Douglass violated law and custom in learning to read. When transferred to the Aulds of Baltimore, Douglass was first taught the alphabet by Mrs. Sophia Auld, the lady of the house. When Hugh Auld, master of the house, discovered this, he directed his wife to cease immediately. Douglass wrote that Mrs. Auld, "had not only ceased to instruct me, herself, but had set her face as flint against my learning to read by any means." This action made him more determined than ever to learn to read. Douglass secretly acquired a spelling book and paid young literate whites to assist him. By the time he reached age thirteen, he could read quite well. For fifty cents, then a great sum for a slave youth to have, he bought the Columbian Orator, which contained, among others, essays on slavery and the rights of colonials in the American Revolution, taken together being "a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man."
Eager to share and improve his own knowledge of letters and some words, Douglass recruited 25 or 30 young enslaved African Americans for underground Bible classes centered around reading the Scriptures, a standard objective of pious African Americans throughout the nineteenth century. These surreptitious reading classes were held "in barns, in the woods and fields" and at the home of a free Black who risked life and limb for harboring misbehaving human property. After a few months, the group was discovered and violently broken up by Douglass' master.
When Douglass reached New York City in 1838 as a runaway slave, he was dazzled by the literacy of Nathan Johnson, his host, who helped him to continue his flight to Massachusetts.