Can Read, Can’t Write?

Everything I’ve ever known about education – curriculum – is that children begin to learn to read and write simultaneously from their very first days in elementary or grammar school. In transcribing information about my ancestors into my genealogy database, I’ve noted and wondered about those who recorded they could read but not write.

Beginning in 1850 and running through the 1880 census, one of the question sections was whether the person enumerated could read and/or write as well as if they had attended school within the past year.  Again, because of the current educational requirements, I would have expected every person between certain ages to have been checked for attending school and being able to read and write. However, that is not the case at all.

For example, in the 1870 census below, my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Farquhar Welch Jackson is shown by a slash mark (in the far right column) that she cannot write. The column just to the left of the slash mark indicates she could read. Her second husband, James Jackson, can both read and write. Her four children from her first marriage are all checked as having attended school within the year; Jane (18) and James (16) can both read and while Isabel (14) can read but not write and my great-grandfather Thomas (12) appears to have slashes indicating he can neither read nor write (later censuses indicated he could both read and write as was the case with the remaining children). educationParticularly intriguing to me is that sometimes even within the same family not all children had attended school within the past year. Sometimes it might be the youngest, say an eight-year-old, who hadn’t attended school within the year but those up to perhaps 18 had attended. With the current education system having had kindergartens for more than my lifetime and a requirement to begin school by age five or six, depending on where one’s birth date falls, I always wonder what family story might explain educational disparity within one family.

The 1940 census, which became available a little over a year ago, identifies the highest education level achieved for everyone within the household. This also sheds light on one’s family heritage. For example, I’ve known most of my life that my mother was orphaned before she turned eight and was sent to her father’s extended family in Carroll County, Virginia, where she did not attend school from 1922 until 1929, although due to her having attended school in Oilton, Oklahoma prior to that move, she was already able to read and write.

In reviewing my direct and indirect family lines by way of the 1940 census, I could see that the majority of the people in that Virginia community had between zero years of education and, perhaps, four to six, with an occasional exception.

Seeing these education levels sheds light on a major theme my grandfather, Jacob Lineberry who was from Carroll County, wrote in letters written around the turn of the 20th century to his brother still living in Virginia; for example, “… [I] hope people they will go to school and try and get an education. I find a man without education is like a horse without harness.” And again when he asked about his youngest brother, “Does Alex go to school I surely wish Papa would send him to school and let him get an education. It is a poor thing to start a boy out now without an education he will be doomed for hard work all his life And the hardest of the work.” In a later letter he said, ” I hope the little Brothers and Sisters will get a good education I think is worth more than a Father can give to a child. if Papa had given me a good education I would thank him for a thousand times but we was raised up like kins that is not sent to school. I hope he will try and send the other children to school if he will spend any money on them that is the only way and Leander try and send your children to school. I have tried enough of the world to know what a man needs.”

My mother apparently caught enough of her father’s attitude toward education that when she returned to Oklahoma, after a 7-year lapse in schooling while in Virginia, she began school in the third grade at age 15. As her teachers saw she was grasping concepts, they advanced her through the grades and within a year she was in the sixth grade. She continued with school until the tenth grade when lack of money to buy books and materials forced her to drop out.

Today, as I was reading some transcriptions of full newspapers from Lamar County, Alabama, which is a community in which I have had indirect family living, I noted the following article from the November 26, 1880 issue of The Vernon Clipper[1], which may shed some light on how it might happen that someone could read but not write.education

The first thing to notice is that the ad specifies the school is for both male and female students. From today’s perspective, we would never think about making sure to specify that girls were to be included in this educational opportunity. Second is that the school is not scheduled to open until November. With our schools opening in late August or perhaps the first days of September, it seems particularly odd to begin a school year in November. I would suppose the demands of crops and farm life established the optimal time for education.

Although this school’s divisions into Primary, Intermediate, Grammar and High School would not translate into anything comparable to grades within our education system, I would suspect Primary might be grades 1 and 2 and possibly 3; Intermediate might be grades 3, 4 and 5, with Grammar being what we might refer to as Middle School. The first educational thing I noted was that writing was not taught at all in the Primary grades; it was not begun until the Intermediate grades.

If Intermediate grades didn’t begin until, say, the fourth grade, that might explain why Isabel could read but not write at the age of 14 and perhaps why, if Sarah had only gone to school for the first two or three grades, that as an adult she might read but not write. It doesn’t, however, explain why Thomas might not have been able to either read or write at the age of 12, although there is some sort of mark on the census for him that makes it difficult to interpret what may be present in those boxes.

Additionally, note there is a fee for education versus the publicly funded education that has been available for everyone throughout my lifetime. Many families enumerated in these early censuses had as many as twelve or thirteen children and income was very limited. My great-grandfather J.F. Willis was a part-time minister. We found the minutes from one of his churches listing his salary for four separate years [it was unclear if these were annual salaries or monthly salaries, although most church budgets were annualized]:

salaries

The fee scale for the school was monthly and graduated based on education level. With J.F.’s income for the time period in mind and the fact he had seven children, his possible fees for one school year might have been 2 Primary students [$1.50 x 8 months each student] $24.00; 2 Intermediate students [$2.00 x 8 months each student] $32.00; 2 Grammar students [$2.50 x 8 months each student] $40.00; and one High School student [$3.00 for 8 months] $24.00. The annual cost for educating his children would have been $120.00 a year.

From this review, I now know children didn’t necessarily begin school at five or six and they didn’t learn to write at the same time they learned to read, all of which provides some insight into the education levels within my historical family.

 

[1] http://www.newspaperabstracts.com/link.php?action=detail&id=17809

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting. It’s a wonder anyone attended school.

  2. From the 1940 census, it’s pretty clear most of them didn’t get much education. I suspect keeping an education log would show a percentage bias for education within cities and towns. They apparently had some public education in town but I don’t think anyone from the farming communities would have been able to get there on a daily basis. I wasn’t able to get any information on the financial structure of the Center School, which was in the vicinity of our rural Fayette County relatives. There was a book in the Fayette Library that had some information on it, but I didn’t have time to read the whole book when we were there in 2002 so I merely skimmed it. Obviously, more research is needed.

  3. Seems your Family tree is private, you were seeking Abbott family… Don’t know if you have any Vest in your tree..One of my abbott cousins was talking about a Jackson line…..My great grand parents were Chan Abbott & Flora Vest…Robert..

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