The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: 1846 Book Teaches Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils


Fre­quent­ly, I see sto­ries in the edu­ca­tion news report­ing on a text­book com­pa­ny, school board, or cur­ricu­lum attempt­ing to min­i­mize or erase the his­to­ry of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States. One recent exam­ple made nation­al news: a text­book pub­lished by McGraw-Hill that described the Atlantic slave trade as bring­ing “mil­lions of work­ers from Africa to the Unit­ed States to work on agri­cul­tur­al plan­ta­tions.”

Roni Dean-Burren—mother of the stu­dent who noticed the “error” and her­self an educator—pointed out, writes NPR, that “while the book describes many Euro­peans immi­grat­ing as inden­tured ser­vants,” there was “no men­tion in this les­son of Africans forced to the U.S. as slaves.” It’s pret­ty egre­gious­ly bad his­tor­i­cal fram­ing; describ­ing slaves as migrant “work­ers” is at best gross under­state­ment and at worst dis­in­for­ma­tion.


The text­book com­pa­ny main­tains it was a mis­take, oth­ers have alleged a delib­er­ate white­wash of a his­to­ry that makes many peo­ple uncom­fort­able. Sim­i­lar­ly heat­ed con­tro­ver­sies have arisen around cer­tain puz­zling­ly cheer­ful chil­dren’s books. I won’t weigh in here on the pol­i­tics of these debates, but I am very curi­ous about why teach­ing the his­to­ry of slav­ery is such a con­tentious issue in class­rooms across the coun­try.

If you were to ask most teach­ers, they would—one hopes—denounce U.S. slav­ery as a great moral wrong and praise its end as self-evi­dent­ly nec­es­sary. So what would it look like to teach the sub­ject that way? Well, for one thing, teach­ers and par­ents might refer to pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments like “The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet,” an abo­li­tion­ist teach­ing tool writ­ten by Quak­ers Han­nah and Mary Townsend and sold at the Philadel­phia Female Anti-Slav­ery soci­ety fair in 1846.


The alpha­bet, writes The Man in the Gray Flan­nel Suit, “con­sists of six­teen leaves, print­ed on one side, with the print­ed pages fac­ing each oth­er and hand-sewn into a paper cov­er. Each of the let­ter illus­tra­tions is hand-col­ored.” Cer­tain­ly a labor of love, and though tar­get­ed to young chil­dren, it is instruc­tive for stu­dents of all ages to see how abo­li­tion­ist ped­a­gogy framed these issues, refus­ing to soft-ped­al the “wretched” con­di­tions slaves endured.

Nor does this text shy away from direct­ly relat­ing these con­di­tions to the com­mod­i­ty mar­ket that sus­tained them. In the page below, for exam­ple, chil­dren learn that the sug­ar “put into your pie and tea / Your can­dy, and your cake,” comes from slave labor. Dit­to the “poi­so­nous and nasty” tobac­co the gen­tle­men chew.


The lan­guage, as is typ­i­cal of the time, is occa­sion­al­ly sen­ti­men­tal or stern­ly moral­is­tic, but the facts do not suf­fer much for it. Is this pro­pa­gan­da? Cer­tain­ly, for a point of view that would take anoth­er 20 years, a bloody civ­il war, and a long strug­gle through a failed Recon­struc­tion and bru­tal Jim Crow era to take hold nation­wide, pock­ets of reac­tionar­ies notwith­stand­ing.

To see all of “The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet,” vis­it The Man in the Gray Flan­nel Suit or the Mis­sis­sip­pi Depart­ment of Archives and His­to­ry, who allow you to zoom in and exam­ine each page close­ly. For more con­tem­po­rary books for chil­dren on the his­to­ry of slav­ery, see this list of “13 Hon­est Books About Slav­ery.” And for a wealth of pri­ma­ry abo­li­tion­ist doc­u­ments from the late 18th to the late 19th ( as well as more recent texts on mod­ern slav­ery) see the archive of “50 Essen­tial Doc­u­ments” at the Abo­li­tion Sem­i­nar, an “edu­ca­tion­al tool for teach­ers, stu­dents, and all who fight for free­dom.


via Mash­able

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Freed Slave Writes Let­ter to For­mer Mas­ter: You Owe Us $11,680 for 52 Years of Unpaid Labor (1865)

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nancy says:

    This is a gem. The his­to­ry of the human rights move­ment in the U.S. is as vital as the his­to­ry of oppres­sion.

  • Liz Gelasi says:

    I found this lit­tle book in my moth­er’s house. Is there any val­ue to it or some muse­um, etc that would like it?

  • Jamie says:

    It’s prob­a­bly too late but I would love to have it.

  • Johnny L Richmond says:

    I AM BY USA mise­duc­tion due every form of repa­ra­tion pay­ments missed and to become due. Repa­ra­tion cred­i­tor John­ny lee Rich­mond 5261 nth 33rd Street mil­wau­kee wis­con­sin 53209

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