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“The [Ku Klux Klan], originally formed for amusement, undertook during the period of reconstruction to hold the negroes in check,” claimed the D.C. Heath and Company printed textbook A History of American Progress, published in 1938. My jaw dropped and I gasped, which was a particular surprise since I had already read at least ten other erroneous and racist remarks within the pages of this old-ass book.
On The Reason for The Civil War: “It is important to understand that the South was defending her economic system, of which slavery was a part.”
On The Role of Slaves During The War: “The slave’s faithfulness to his master and to his master’s family still receives the admiration of the world.”
On being freed from slavery: “Many of the negroes saw no need of working if the government would support them and they supposed that the government would help them forever. The belief became common among them that the government would give every freedman “forty acres and a mule. Many who had been faithful slaves were fast becoming paupers and criminals.”
On “Negroes Control” During Reconstruction: “The congressional plan of reconstruction allowed the negroes to vote while it prevented many whites from voting.”
The book never mentioned the cruelties of slavery or the realities of those born into it. Nothing about separating families, rape, vicious beatings, inhumane living conditions, or deprivations of knowledge. There is no mention of the thousands of slaves who risked amputation or death to run away from the south, instead just vague scribbling about the brainwashed faithful. The bravery of people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass is skipped over for Nat Turner’s rebellion, the only black person mentioned by name. This was an obvious way to associate blackness primarily with murder and vengeance without much context.
Post-emancipation black desire for political autonomy, public education, rightful reparations, and economic opportunities were ignored for the narrative of lazy niggers being used by corrupt white carpetbaggers. Murderous eras like the nadir of American race relations (culminating with 1919’s Red Summer) were also ignored, along with any records of black achievement. Looking around Starbucks, I shut A History of American Progress and shifted in my seat uncomfortably, my mind years away from the time and space my body occupied. Nearly a century’s worth of schoolchildren of all colors ingested twisted and whitewashed messages like these. These lessons would guide them as citizens and determined how they would interact with each other and in politics. These lessons, evolved from centuries of racial hierarchy and the post-emancipation ooze of Lost Cause rhetoric, are the prime cause of the racists we know and hate today.
The Sore Losers and Their Web of Lies
Call it ego, but when the South first entered the Civil War, they were sure that victory was certain. So when the South not only lost but sat in demolished ruins in 1865, there was a desperate scramble to explain why the South lost and why it was still glorious. Historians eager to select and memorialize southern heroes cropped up like angry boils, and many of them were members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What they shat out is called the Lost Cause ideology. In their gratuitous works, biographies (better-considered hagiographies) about confederate icons like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were written to encourage the next batch of southern citizens to feel pride. All Confederate soldiers were considered patriotic and religious defenders of southern homes, family, and women. The North was lambasted as jealous plunderers of southern culture, with reconstruction spun as a corrupt and oppressive period of black rule and Yankee vindictiveness. Above all else, the Civil War was written as a struggle over state’s rights. With these ideas in mind, historians of the Lost Cause set out to unite students of all classes into a love for the Confederacy by building Confederate statues and organizing essay writing contests. This love would be deep-rooted and generational, making it harder for southern citizens to criticize the Confederacy and it’s themes of white supremacy, classism, and fanaticism.
By the 1910’s most southern states established textbook commissions, as this was around the time public education became a priority. The content in these books borrowed heavily from Lost Cause writings. One prominent Lost Cause writer, Mildred L. Rutherford, published A Measuring Rod To Test Textbooks And Reference Books on behalf of the United Confederate Veterans. The descendant of a wealthy slave-owning realtor, Miss Millie (as called by friends and family) created the guide to establish rules for what was considered appropriate for southern classrooms. The book claimed that textbooks up until that point were “unjust to the south and her institutions” instructing teachers and schools to reject books that didn’t state the north was responsible for the Civil War, that said the civil war was about slaves, and that said slaves were mistreated. That last one struck fire to my heart.
“Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the south as cruel and unjust to his slaves,” Miss Millie wrote, following up with three quotes from white men to be completely persuasive. Said one, “These niggers as you call them, are the happiest people I have ever seen. They are oily, sleek, bountifully fed, and well taken care of. One hears them at all times, whistling and singing cheerily at their work.” This was a common theme in southern textbooks, fulfilling Lost Cause demand to breathe life into the narrative that black people enjoyed slavery, or that it was more beneficial to them than freedom. Said one 1934 textbook, “[slaves liked to] sing, dance, crack jokes, and laugh; admired bright colors, never in a hurry, and [were] always ready to let things go until the morrow.” Others downplayed the brutality rendered upon slaves. One textbook sanitized the existence of rape, claiming, “Slave women rarely resisted the advances of white men, as their numerous mulatto progeny abundantly attested.” Miss Millie wrapped up her assertion that slaves weren’t mistreated with a quote from the son of Harriet Beecher Stowe: “If you ask me if the slaves were better off under the institution of slavery than they are under freedom, I must in candor answer that some were- they were not fit for freedom.” So while Lost Cause ideology meant claiming that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery AND that slaves weren’t mistreated, writers also voiced their discontent that black people were actually free. You’d literally have to be brainwashed to accept this as true.
One example that comes to mind when considering the desire of elite sore losers to brainwash upcoming generations of students is Virginia. In 1950 when arguments over integration heated up, politicians in Virginia felt students were ignorant of state history and commissioned textbooks that were released in 1957 and would continue to be used into the 1970s. “Segregationists in very high offices in the state thought that they could use the Lost Cause version of the Civil War to support segregation.” said historian Adam W. Dean in an interview from earlier this year. In these books, slaves were called happy, the treasonous act of secession labeled “Defense against Invasion”, and a description of Robert E. Lee used the word “handsome” as historical fact. The books neglected to mention Massive Resistance, in which the state of Virginia loudly opposed the federal requirement of school integration. Clearly, those in the highest offices of the state wanted Virginian students to know a certain kind of history. The kind that not only legitimized southern treason and racism, but ignored black history- even though black scholars had been diligently making their work accessible since 1916.
Wait, Black People Have a History!
The few black historians to exist at the end of the 19th century centered white Americans, Christianity, and traditional ideals (i.e. capitalism) and used historical narrative to promote proof of black loyalty to America. Or more simply, black historians wanted to write black people into the sanitized fabric of American history rather than explore our past and present realities independent of white folks. A custom framework for our history had not yet been developed. While this largely would not change until the 1960s with the combustion of the black consciousness (salute Malcolm X), the Civil Rights Movement, and urban uprisings, black history was still made a priority by some in our community during the early 20th century. One year after Carter G Woodson established The Association For The Study of The Negro Life and History in 1915, he began publishing the Journal of Negro History in 1916. The association also started authoring textbooks, along with creating Negro History Week which later became Black History Month. The bulk of this work was ignored by white scholars. They were operating on the Noah Webster line of thinking: “wooly-haired Africans [have] no history, and there can be none.”
W.E.B Dubois, of course, was a trailblazer in studying “material, cultural, and spiritual landmarks,” but like most of his peers, he initially believed racism existed because white people simply didn’t know all the great things black people had done. Our historians were trying to attack the notion that black people were backward and ignorant inferiors who had no history. This idea of promoting black excellence later became the basis for exploring black history, which did not make a good recipe when mixed with lost cause rhetoric about reconstruction and lazy niggers. While black historians insisted we were worthy of equality because of all the awesome things we had done, white scholars were explaining that racial inequality was a result of black inferiority. Black people were written as former slaves taking up space in an increasingly powerful America, not as one of it’s builders. There were no mentions of white accountability for black discrimination, the oppressive connection between class and race, or the existence of white paternalism. In A History of American Progress and other books like it, white acts of aggression and patterns of oppression were completely ignored for a narrative that allowed white children to feel nothing but pride for the past.
In the midst of various violent riots in the late 60s, along with radical factions of the black power movement, many white people began wondering why blacks were demanding equality. The media began producing tv specials and articles, and different local and state governments began looking for information on the black experience. In 1968, states began requiring black history in schools and by the early 1970s textbook companies were revising their pages to include black history. But problems in the curriculum -particularly ones that endorsed Lost Cause rhetoric and erasure and marginalization of minorities- persisted.
Teaching Today’s Racists
With the introduction of black history into American public schools and a move towards a more diverse curriculum, there was confusion over how best to teach the subject- and how it would complement other courses. Causing the confusion was ignorance and hatred. Remember, the white people who lived in the 60s and 70s were not suddenly made aware of the breadth of white supremacy and systematic oppression simply because they watched the violence of the Civil Rights movement play out on their TV screens. Most had been fed a steady diet of Lost Cause ideology, just like their parents and their parents before them, and letting go of it’s concepts were a hard sell. Fights over diverse textbooks and curriculum, along with forced integration and bussing, led to a boom in private schools and homeschooling. One fight that was actually violent involved Kanawha County Schools in 1974 West Virginia, and the animosity stemmed from language arts courses adopting non-fiction books by diverse writers. The ringleader Alice Moore first entered education policy in 1969 when advocating for the removal of newly implemented sex ed courses. With a narrowly religious worldview that matched that of her neighbors, Alice Moore succeeded in rebuking comprehensive sex ed and was elected to the school board in 1970.
In April 1974 a set of books that included black authors like Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin was presented to the school board for adoption in the Language Arts Program. After looking over the list in disgust, Alice rallied the wealthiest moms in town against the list. Moore was particularly displeased with Malcolm X’s disapproval and critiques of Christianity. According to Joe Kincheloe, “Moore argued that the language arts goal of emphasizing the racial, cultural, and philosophical diversity of American society was from her perspective anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-authority, depressing, and negative.” What would ensue would be a long and violent battle to get the books from being adopted. While later generations would claim the incident wasn’t racist, a building in the county was painted with the words, “Get the nigger books out!” The National Education Association reported in 1975 that “teachers have received complaints from parents about illustrations in textbooks depicting a white female student and black male student together.” James Baldwin works were targeted for allegedly being “anti-white.”
By the time of the next school board meeting in June, over 1000 angry white parents had assembled. With Alice Moore at the helm, they presented a petition signed by at least 12,000 locals to prohibit books that encouraged skepticism in “the family unit which comes from the marriage of a man an a woman, belief in God, the American political system, the free enterprise economic system, and the history of America as ‘the record of one of the noblest civilizations that has existed.’” The school board agreed to not buy eight of the books but decided to adopt the rest. In the months that followed, windows at the School Board of Education were shattered by shotgun blasts and 10,000 miners walked off the job to protest the “dirty books.” By September, “two men were shot, car windows were smashed, news teams were beaten, and vandals inflicted around 300,000 dollars of damage on the schools.” Cars were burned and protesters blocked buses from carrying students to school. In October the Board of Education building was bombed by the anti-textbook brigade. While the books were eventually adopted (with the most controversial being reserved in school libraries to be accessed with parental permission), the bloody battle to keep them out of classrooms demonstrates how white Americans center their history and narratives.
Across the country, less dramatic school board fights over textbooks and curriculum raged on, eventually coming under conservative influence during the 80s. Many textbook firms were consolidated during that decade and the next, meaning fewer options than before. These options are highly influenced by the largest purchaser, which happens to be Texas. Close to half of all states adopt textbooks based on state school board decisions and don’t allow districts or classrooms to choose. It’s no wonder that in red states, conservative values, evolved from Lost Cause doctrine, have weaseled themselves into many history textbooks. This, of course, impacts how history is taught in the classroom. In a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of responding high school students identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. A national poll revealed that a whopping 41% of American adults don’t believe slavery to be the cause of the Civil War, which would make Miss Millie and other Lost Cause historians proud. Another study found that just 8-9% of year-long history class time is spent on black history. And the history taught leaves much to be desired- with the most common subjects being the sanitized achievements of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. Nuanced black history is not explored unless a teacher is competent and caring enough to do so.
When I first cracked open A History of American Progress, I knew the book would be bad. But knowing that the ideas within it– stereotyping blacks as lazy, slavery as a noble institution, and the erasure of white violence and systematic oppression– make up the fairy tale fluff being pedaled to today’s children, made it worse. In the litany of documentaries and articles produced about Trump supporters, anti-Obama crusaders, confederate flag wavers, All Lives Matter agitators, and ‘there are a difference between niggas and niggers” advocates, there is a key component that irons their collective racist ideologies free of the wrinkles of guilt, shame, or critical thinking. They have all been lied to about American history and made to feel justified in their claims that the racial hierarchy in this country doesn’t exist or that it’s the result of natural white superiority. From the sore losers of the Civil War, who needed to justify treason and the subjugation of humans, gushed a web of lies to dull feelings of shame and ensure a post-slavery racial hierarchy would survive. They taught their children racism, and the lesson continues today. The same lesson would be supplemented by stereotypes in media and bias in news. The Southern Confederates and their descendants lost the Civil War, but so far they have been winning the battles of public education by brainwashing generations of American children. If this continues, it won’t be long before they have won the war against accurate and nuanced history.
- A Measuring Rod To Test Textbooks And Reference Books (Mildred Lewis Rutherford)
- Alice Moore and The Kanawha County Textbook Controversy (Joe Kincheloe)
- 1975 Inquiry Report by the National Education Association into the Kanawha Textbook Controversy
- Happy Slaves? The Peculiar Story of Three Virginia School Textbooks (Rex Springston)
- Lost Cause Motherhood: Southern Women Writers (Glenn Robins)
- Coming of Age: The Transformation of Afro American Historiography (Robert L. Harris Jr.)
- How Dixie’s History Got Whitewashed (Kevin. M Levin)
- History Class and the Fictions About Race in America (Alia Wong)
- Teaching Hard History: American Slavery (Report by Southern Poverty Law Center)
- A History of American Progress (Fremont P. Wirth & Waddy Thompson)
- Textbook Racism: How Scholars Sustained White Supremacy (Donald Yacovone)