Celebrate Black History : Literacy

Read quilt block from Read Quilt by the Fiber Arts Group displayed at Central Adult Learning Center
Read Quilt Block from the Read Quilt
by the Fiber Arts Group
at Central Adult Learning Center

Self-Taught by Heather Andrea Williams
by Heather Andrea Williams

Adult Learning Center: reading book on Nelson Mandela
Learning Center
Reading a book on Nelson Mandela

Self-Taught by Heather Andrea Williams
Learning Center
Student's writing

Adult Learning Center: reading book on Nelson Mandela
Learning Center
Computer Time

From the colonial period in the United States and onward educating slaves was prohibited, as black literacy would be a threat to the slave system. But even with great obstacles, slaves pursued being literate; literacy was a persistent symbol of resistance. In the North, African-Americans had greater access to education and some had basic reading and writing skills. After the Civil War, emancipated blacks worked vigorously to establish institutions for formal education as Heather Andrea Williams writes in Self-Taught: African-American Education in Slavery and Freedom, and encountered obstacles in their pursuit of education: “Although African Americans had always known that the pursuit of literacy was a subversive activity that might provoke retribution from white southerners, they seemed to experience greater threats after Emancipation.”(Source: The Johns Hopkins University Press). From Reconstruction to the desegregation battles of the Civil Rights movement and current struggles for functioning public schools, the education battle continues.

Brent Staples writes in an editorial in the New York Times about the connection between black literacy in the 19th century and present-day professional success. Staples writes that there is a strong correlation between early emancipation, the ability to be educated, passing on literacy to the next generation, upward mobility and survival of the family.

The Reverend James Lawson writes in the foreword in Marching to the Mountaintop by Ann Bausum:
"This quest for human dignity – equality, liberty, and justice for all – is the soul of the sanitation strike and the civil rights movement…Our work for human dignity and truth is not over. Each generation must do its share. Racism, sexism, violence, greed, and materialism are still with us. You must continue the personal and community nonviolent march toward the promised land."
In 2013 we observed significant milestones in American history: the Emancipation Proclamation, the March on Washington and the second inauguration of the first Black President of the U.S.A. This year we are focusing on "the personal and community nonviolent march toward the promised land" at BPL.

A Huffington Post article noted that based on data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14 percent of adult Americans demonstrated a "below basic" literacy level in 2003 (date of the latest completed assessment), and 29 percent exhibited a "basic" reading level. "We probably don't need to spell out the benefits of reading and writing for you. Economic security, access to health care, and the ability to actively participate in civic life all depend on a individual's ability to read." A quote from the Do Something a not-for profit organization for young peopel and social changes, states "Literacy is a learned skill. Illiteracy is passed down from parents who can neither read nor write." While illiteracy is not confined to the black community, it does significantly affect the black community.

Today, for adults seeking to be literate, the Brooklyn Public Library is tackling inequalities. Brooklyn Public Library’s Adult Learning Centers (five locations: Bedford, Central, Eastern Parkway, Flatbush and New Lots) are helping many young adults and adults (older than 17 years of age) on this journey to improve their literacy. At the Learning Center, small groups meeting bi-weekly are led by a trained literacy volunteer to reach their individual goals. The students are encouraged to also support each other in their group. The students are diverse in their ethnic background, ages and gender. Some are immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades. The goals of most students are to include the ability to:

  • fill out a job application and other forms
  • use an ATM/ MTA metrocard machine
  • enroll in classes to pass the High School Equivalency (HSE, formerly GED) exam
  • read to their children or grandchildren
  • be a better speaker, reader and writer
  • perform better in their job
  • pass job advancement exams
  • use a dictionary
  • get around comfortably in NYC and other cities
  • apply for citizenship
  • read maps, such as the MTA subway/bus map

In Fiscal year 2013 ( July 2012- June 2013)

  • 185 volunteer tutors received 20 hours of tutor training
  • 1,234 Adult Basic education tests were given
  • 59,431 hours of instruction were given to students at the Learning Center; 16,021 hours were spent in direct instruction; 11,062 hours include the use of technology as part of the students instruction and 2,056 hours were spent by students in the Learning Centers doing independent studying.

The great diversity of students at the Adult Learning Centers is reflected in the diversity among the literacy volunteers. Some are retired teachers (from pre-k to college professors) and journalists; others are parents who help their own children with homework. All are committed warriors in the battle on illiteracy in America and in giving back to the community. Their volunteer time enables the students to improve their lives and interact more effectively and confidently with the larger community.

One student wrote about the free literacy program at BPL’s Learning Center:

"Since I have been coming to the Eastern Parkway Learning Center I learned to spell much better and I write better too. I feel better about myself because I can speak better and talk to more people."

"I am spending money more carefully and I sometimes buy and collect things. I have learned to budget my money better. I like coming to the library and I enjoy the students and tutors at the Learning Center. I have more confidence in the things I do and the way I present myself to others."

For more BPL Adult Learning Center Students' writing.

Additional Education Programs Offered


For a historical view, check out Black History Month at the Brooklyn Collection