On Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m. in the Dogwood Room, professor of English Dr. Betsy Bowen Ph.D. presented her research on literacy deficiencies amongst the last of generation of enslaved Americans. This event marks the culmination of Bowen’s intimate research on the stark educational inequalities that emerged in the early 1930s. With approximately 2,300 interviews of enslaved Americans collected, Bowen and her students began to dive deeper into the lack of literacy amongst generations.
Upon taking a short sabbatical, Bowen uncovered hundreds of interviews of former slaves discussing the various reasons as to why they lacked such foundational literacy standards. She highlighted one of the many individuals in Zek Brown. At almost 30-years-old, Brown lacked any educational background. Rather than attending school with fellow classmates, he was responsible for taking care of house and yard work. During his late 20s, Brown began to study books and teach himself how to read. Although Brown is one of the many individuals whom Bowen had the opportunity to study, his story encouraged her to seek a greater understanding of such a stark contrast develops between white and black literacy standards following the Civil War. When discussing Bowen’s findings she suggested, “people in power have a fear of literacy.”
Such a sentiment helps to describe how following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, individuals were still left uneducated. Education provides a sense of power that was prohibited amongst the enslaved class. Therefore, Bowen continued to study the progression of American literacy in the generation of the last enslaved Americans.
At the completion of her research, Bowen categorized her findings into four themes: restriction by law, restriction by poverty and segregation, resistance, and achievement.
While each interview tells an individual’s unique story, one of the encompassing themes is the overwhelming desire for literacy. Hundreds of the enslaved Americans found ways to reach a level of literacy, with many turning towards the Bible to read scripture, or otherwise finding pens and scraps of paper.
Sophomore Joanna Mastropaola recounted on the impact of the event, “It was very moving reading and hearing about the struggles of the last living enslaved people.”
Bowen’s passion and enthusiasm for her research has not be left unnoticed. Her dedication to her studies has amounted to an educational platform that helps students better comprehend the explosive literacy gap amongst enslaved and white Americans.