Shiner's primary purpose in writing his diary appears to have been his strong desire to record the public events of his time. Recording those events that he wanted to preserve, Shiner seems to have felt little need to say anything about his life prior to his first entries in 1813. With only a few exceptions he writes little about his state of mind, immediate family, marriage, children, other family members or his finances. From the manuscript we have no references to how he became literate.
As an antebellum freeman Shiner chose to closely guard his family safety, and privacy. To avoid suspicion, Shiner chose to keep his literacy a secret and avoid confrontations with whites. The Slave Code for District of Columbia in force during much of Michael Shiner's lifetime did not make teaching slaves to read and write illegal, but both District of Columbia custom and practice strongly discouraged such actions.
How did Michael Shiner learn to read and write? Fortunately we have two important clues: the first is an 1870 Department of Education of the District of Columbia Special Report. This official report and history of the District public school system relates (with remarkable candor for its time) the segregated history of education in early Washington, D.C. The report is quite clear that due to the race laws of the antebellum era, the only schools that most African Americans could legally enter were church Sunday schools. The report then goes on to list Michael Shiner as an actual example of one of the many individuals who learned to read and write in this manner:
"The Sabbath School among the colored people in those times differed from the institution as organized among whites as it embraced young and old and most of the time was given not to studying of the Bible but to learning to read. It was the only school which for a time they were allowed to enter.
First Presbyterian Church of Washington at the foot of Capitol Hill opened a Sunday school for colored people in 1826 which held regular meetings every Sunday evening for years and in it many men women and children learned their alphabet and to read the bible. Michael Shiner one of the most remarkable colored men of the District who remembers almost everything that occurred at the Navy Yard during his service of some 60 years there is of this number."2
Second, it is clear from the report that Shiner was by 1870 a well known and respected figure. While he learned to read and write through the church Sunday school programs, he may have had further occasions to gain literacy in the Washington Navy Yard itself. The above-quoted report relates that Thomas Tabb, a white teacher with abolitionist leanings, kept a small school at the Yard where "he taught in the afternoons under a large tree and large numbers of colored children attended this school." The report goes on to describe how Sailing Master Dove's wife, Margaret Dove, helped teach at this school and that one of her pupils was Alexander Hays. Hays, went on to purchase his own freedom and become a leader in the black community. In this tightly knit group, Michael Shiner and Alexander Hays almost certainly knew each other and most likely their mutual acquaintance was formed at the Washington Navy Yard. In his diary, Michael Shiner, notes Sailing Master Dove on a number of occasions and apparently held him in high regard, although far from certain, it is indeed possible, that Michael Shiner spent what free time he could in lessons with Thomas Tabb and Margaret Dove.
2. District of Columbia Department of Education, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition of Public Schools in the District of Columbia, Submitted to the Senate June 6, 1868 and to the House with Additions June 13, 1870. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870): 215, 221.