Story Behind the Number: Literacy and Lynchings

Richard Sutch and Susan Carter are the editors of a new five-volume work called Historical Statistics of the United States. Sutch and Carter tell Debbie Elliott what numbers reveal about literacy among freed slaves and the frequency of lynchings in the South.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

A statistic about the literacy of freed slaves recently came to our attention. According to a new five-volume compilation called Historical Statistics, the percentage of former slaves who said they couldn't read or write plummeted after emancipation. Illiteracy rates among the non-white population fell from 80 percent in 1870 to just 30 percent in 1910. But what's in a statistic?

Ms. SUSAN CARTER (Editor, "Historical Statistics of the United States"): A lot of these datas that are presented in those five volumes, they were collected and presented here because they answer a question that's relevant to American history today.

ELLIOTT: That's economic historian Susan Carter. With the official blessing of the U.S. Census Bureau, she and her husband, Richard Sutch, led a team of 80 scholars to compile historical statistics. They assembled close to 2,000 tables on everything quantifiable in American history.

Ms. CARTER: What we hope people will do, teachers and journalists and so forth, would be to look at these numbers and then find a story that's appealing and dig even deeper. We give all the sources so you can expand and add to it.

ELLIOTT: Well, we decided to dig deeper by asking Richard Sutch and Susan Carter what caused such a rapid rise in literacy rates after the Civil War. I asked them for the story behind the numbers.

Mr. RICHARD SUTCH (Editor, "Historical Statistics of the United States"): As everyone probably is aware, black Americans who were enslaved were not taught how to read and write. In fact, in many Southern states it was illegal. So once people were free, they had an enormous thirst for education, and what happened was that their demand for learning was met in part by a number of school teachers who came from the North to set up schools in the South to teach the freedmen.

But of course the freedmen needed to work in the fields to keep alive, and that meant that the adults, by and large, couldn't attend the schools. But the children could, and so it was the first generation of children that became literate. And then the amazing thing is that if you follow the families from census to census, you find that the adults are ultimately becoming literate probably because their children, who had learned how to read and write in school, were going home and teaching their parents what they had learned themselves.

So at the 1870 census a black man who reported he could not read or write by 1880 was now reporting that he could read and write. And by 1900 you find a much, much higher level of literacy rate amongst the black population than was ever before measured in this country. It was a testimony to the thirst for education that the black population had.

Ms. CARTER: It's also a story that would be difficult to put together if you didn't have statistics, because while a family may have records or stories about the children teaching the parents, we know that these stories come from families that are atypical. And we might say, can we generalize? How common was this? But what the statistics allow us to do is see how widespread it was.

ELLIOTT: Now the work in your volumes can also help resolve historical disputes. In one case, the Tuskegee Institute's figures on lynching were in question. What did you find?

Mr. SUTCH: Tuskegee Institute was collecting data back in the 1890s on lynchings in the United States, lynchings, the illegal execution of black people by white mobs. But many historians approached that data very skeptically.

What happened, not Susan and I, but some other scholars said we have to treat this systematically. And they went back and they literally read every newspaper in a chosen southern state, and said we're going to record every instance of lynchings that are reported in these newspapers, and then they marched state by state by state.

And what they found was not that the Tuskegee figures were wrong, but that the Tuskegee figures were essentially correct, and this amazed some people because the Tuskegee figures were showing that there were as many as 120, 150 lynchings per year in the southern United States. That's a lynching every week, more than once a week. It's just a steady drumbeat of violent oppression.

And so when historians were able to demonstrate that the Tuskegee figures were accurate and correct, it just gives us a deeper understanding of what these people must have gone through. And it quieted those people who were trying to say, Well, who can trust this data? Maybe it wasn't as bad as people make it out to be. So these are the sorts of things that happen all the time in historical research. But some of these questions can only be answered quantitatively.

ELLIOTT: Richard Sutch and Susan Carter are editors-in-chief of Historical Statistics of the United States, which will be published this spring by Cambridge University Press. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. CARTER: Thank you, Debbie.

Mr. SUTCH: Our pleasure.

ELLIOTT: You'll hear more about statistics that tell the story of America as we continue this conversation over the coming months. We're calling the series A Story Behind the Number. This is NPR News.

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