“THE POWER OF BOX 12” By Mae Catherine Godhigh

The hands of time pull us forward as we face February, a month set aside to celebrate our 365 African-American heritage.

2020 has taken me on a new journey with our family’s ancestry. While viewing an 1850 census form, box 12 grabbed my attention. It was a literacy question. The enumerator asked my great-great-grandfather if he could read or write, and he answered YES to reading and no to writing.

His answer came 13 years prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. My 2nd Great Grandfather could READ!

I read his answer again and again. I wanted to know more. Who taught him, and where? Learning to read could have cost him his life. I wish I could have been present when he answered the European enumerator. Just to witness the silent questioning of MY ancestor’s truth and possibly the indignation as he wrote yes in box 12. Before, I knew it tears slid out the corners of my eyes as I thought about the resiliency and fearlessness embodied in that moment. Who knew that his YES would ignite future generations? His YES would furnish us with the boldness to openly defy systemic oppression and the enslavement of our people’s minds and bodies.

Slaves Are Prohibited to Read and Write by Law

Slave masters understood that their social control of the slaves could not be based solely on physical coercion. Knowledge was power!

That any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction, shall, at the discretion of the court, if a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.
II. Be it further enacted, That if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.
Source: “Act Passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at the Session of 1830—1831” (Raleigh: 1831).

In a previous article, I shared with you my kindergarten experience. One day, the teacher asked our class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I could hardly wait for my turn. I answered I want to become a writer! Her hesitation and reaction stung like a million bees. I could see the wheels of re-direction turning in her eyes. This was her moment to validate my dream; instead, she chose to discourage me and left me zero hope. However, that same fire from my ancestor burned within me. In my spirit, I saw yes in box 12. Today, I am a published author of 3 books and currently pregnant with a fourth. As this year unfolds, I encourage us to dig deep into your family’s history. Savor and write down the oral stories and their experiences. Legacy is the greatest gift we can leave to our children. We are not only reshaping our history, but we are renewing generations. Please join me in celebrating our courageous ancestors and the power of box 12.

  • Please note this is a partial version of our Randle Family Tree.