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Parents who teach their children at home know the value of education. But consider how valuable education is to those who are denied the chance to learn, to those who have to surmount obstacles to receive even the most basic education.
While writing the book Free Indeed: Heroes of Black Christian History, I was struck by the great lengths to which many of these men went to pursue an education. For some, learning meant painstaking labor. Lott Carey, a slave in Richmond,Virginia, in the early 1800s, heard his pastor preach on the story of Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3). So eager was Carey to read that account for himself that he memorized the passage and then agonizingly compared what he had memorized to the printed word until he puzzled it out. Determinedly, Carey continued to labor over the Scriptures, teaching himself to read by this method. Over a decade later that doggedness of character served him well when, freed from slavery, he went as a pioneer missionary to Africa.
Likewise, consider the case of Charles Tindley. Born into a slave family in Maryland in the 1850s, Tindley was hired out as a worker to different families, some of whom, Tindley recalled, were cruel and refused to allow him to have even a book. Nonetheless, he picked up scraps of newspaper by the road, hid them in his shirt (he had no pockets), and at night secretly studied them by the light of dying coals. His love for learning never left him. Although he had little formal education, he read constantly. "He seems nice," one acquaintance said, "but he don’t get his head out of a book long enough to let you know him." Rising from slavery,Tindley eventually became an outstanding minister in Philadelphia and wrote numerous gospel songs, such as "Nothing Between."
John Jasper was a slave in Richmond, Virginia, before the Civil War. "I knowed nothing worth talking about concerning books," he said. "They was sealed mysteries to me, but I tell you I longed to break the seal." Jasper persuaded a slave who could read to give him lessons, secretly, at night. "It was hard pulling, I tell you," Jasper recalled. His friend "knowed just a little, and it made him sweat to beat something into my hard head." Finally, Jasper was able to read the Bible well enough. Although he admitted that he never became a scholar, Jasper did go on to become a pastor. After the Civil War, he built one of the most successful churches, black or white, in Richmond.
Learning for African Americans often involved disapproval or sometimes even danger. Daniel Payne, born a free black in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1811, longed not only to learn but also to teach. A carpenter, he saved his money to buy books. He would bolt down his breakfast and lunch so that he could spend time reading. After work Payne would read until midnight, then arise at 4:00 a.m. to read more until he went to work at 6:00. Finally, with great pride, he opened his first school. His students found an eager and inventive teacher, one whose classroom methods included dissecting a live alligator.Then the Nat Turner slave rebellion led Southerners to fear the education of blacks and to outlaw black education. Forced to close his school, Payne went north to finish his education. There he eventually became president of Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Francis Grimké, like Payne, was from the Charleston area, and he was the son of a slave and her master. After the Civil War, Grimké’s intellectual keenness earned him a trip north to attend Lincoln University. After graduation, he announced his call to the ministry and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.Yet his own upward climb by means of education did not blind Grimké to the need for the right kind of education—a God-centered education. "Brain power is all right," he said, "and all that can be done to develop it, to set it forth in all its fullness and morals. If under it is no reverence for God and for things that are true, just, lovely, and of good report, its influence will be evil and not good."
Education is so common today that many students regard it as a burden more than an opportunity. It would not hurt, then, to think of men and women for whom it was a blessing longed for and labored after. And, for all of these men, education was a means to an end—to know better Jesus Christ, whom to know rightly is life eternal (John 17:3).