Letters written by people who were enslaved in the United States are rare. Slaves were generally prohibited from learning to read and/or write, often with severe consequences threatened. Some did learn on their own, persevering under extreme circumstances. Others were taught by owners or by missionaries wanting to teach the Bible. A slave having these skills would frequently keep them secret. Some slave letters were actually written down or "transcribed" by sympathetic whites or by other slaves who could write. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that few letters exist. Those that do exist often reveal heart-felt sentiments toward family and human rights.
The following is a list of known slave letters in the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. These letters vary in content and most have no supporting information about the author. They do provide a glimpse into the lives of people who fought the odds to express themselves. The descriptions of the letters are linked to catalog records of the larger collections of which they are a part in order to provide a fuller descriptive context.