London Ferebee counted three milestones in his life — the day he was born, the day he was freed, and the day he learned the alphabet. The last came on June 1, 1863, when he was fourteen years old, thanks to a minister of an African American church in New Bern.

Ferebee, a former slave who lived in North Carolina during the American Civil War, may not be a name schoolchildren grow up hearing, but he and untold African Americans in the late 1800s influenced history when they “stole their education,” says Heather Andrea Williams, assistant professor of history and author of Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. In Self-Taught, Williams provides the first-ever narrative of how African Americans struggled for the right to learn during slavery and their first decade of freedom. She relies on the voices of African Americans she uncovered from letters, journals, memoirs, and newspaper accounts.

During slavery, when Southern states outlawed people from teaching blacks to read and write, African Americans learned through covert activities, such as exchanging boxing lessons for reading and writing lessons, eavesdropping on classrooms and private tutorials, and holding school in large pits in the woods. During Reconstruction, when it was no longer illegal for black people to learn, African Americans built schools or set up classrooms in churches. Even poor whites could be seen among the classes, which could hold up to a hundred pupils. Those who already knew how to read became the first teachers. When they exhausted their skills, they wrote letters to missionaries in the North asking them to teach in the South.

But some African Americans who dared to learn still had their homes vandalized, their schools set on fire, and their teachers whipped, as “racism and white supremacy grew out of slavery,” Williams says.

Yet African Americans persevered, she writes. In Savannah, black people were so eager to learn they held school in Bryan’s slave mart, where only years before slaves had been auctioned off. On Hilton Head Island, a teacher recorded in her memoir how a hundred or so of her students arrived at about half past six one morning demanding for the school day to start, when class normally started at nine. The students, the teacher wrote, welcomed “their school-hours…like one bright holiday.” Sometimes, Williams says, as “I read through such material, I find myself getting caught up in their optimism. And I’ll forget for a moment how things turned out.”

Though history textbooks often cast missionaries and carpetbaggers from the North as initiators of the South’s progress in schools, Williams argues that African Americans served as the “impetus for the establishment of southern public school systems.” But once Southern states created common schools, “black students remained shut out from receiving the full benefits of the educational system,” as per capita expenditures for black students fell below that for white children, and the length of school terms and teacher salaries for black schools lagged behind those of white schools, Williams says.

“Today,” Williams adds, “some black people, either unaware of African Americans’ struggle for education or weary from the daily battles within classrooms, internalize negative assessments of both their abilities and their values and opt out of the fight.”

So, she says, she tells the stories of the London Ferebees to counter impressions that African Americans “do not value education.”

Cherry Crayton was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.