“If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him.”
These are the words of one of Frederick Douglass' slave masters. The man was speaking to his wife, the mistress of the house whom he had just discovered teaching the alphabet to the young Frederick (~age 10).
Years later in his autobiography, the then free Frederick Douglass shared in full what he had overheard his once master say that day to his wife:
Douglass later relates that, before this incident, the mistress had "kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. ... [and] assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.”
Sadly, however, after the master’s warning, her “tender heart became stone” and she stopped all teachings.
But the young Frederick had gotten a taste of knowledge and so was now determined to read. “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the [yard].”
And this is where children come into Douglass’ determination to become a literate human being.
At a time when so many adults were barbaric to the young Frederick, he turned to the aid of his peers: children. And from them he not only received practical guidance on his path to literacy, but also moral support in his struggle for liberty.
About a decade later, Frederick Douglass heroically escaped his bondage, eventually becoming one of the most upright, learned statesmen in history — despite literally having first learned to read from little boys in the streets.
Jesse McCarthy is the Founder and Head Guide of Montessori Education, an organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers raise independent, flourishing children — while enjoying themselves along the way.