Brian Lyman, Montgomery
December 7, 2020·5 min read
For much of the 20th century, Southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.
Teachers taught students to sing Dixie and memorize long lists of forgettable governors. Civil War battles got described in detail. Textbooks celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically-elected, multiracial governments. Lynching went unmentioned. The evils of slavery got cursory acknowledgments — and quick dismissals.
“It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” a 1961 Alabama history textbook said, falsely.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-10-0/html/r-sf-flx.html
The same forces that took over public spaces to erect monuments to the Confederacy and its white supremacist tenets also kept a tight grip on the history taught to Southern pupils. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spent decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which glorified the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and was used to justify segregation and authoritarian Jim Crow governance.
“With all the attention they received in terms of reference to the monuments, I think their most lasting impact was in controlling and censoring textbooks,” said Kevin Levin, a historian who has written on the Civil War in American memory. “That’s often overlooked.”
But Black Southerners refused to accept these distortions. Black historians mounted challenges to Lost Cause mythology as early as 1913. Parents and grandparents pushed back against the school lessons given to their children. They passed family stories onto children and grandchildren. They took ordinary moments, like preparing food or fixing hair, to tell stories of Black achievement.
Confederate reckoning: Southern newspapers were vocal supporters of the Confederacy. It lasted for generations
All too many times, they had to do their own work to learn that history. Frederick Webb, an actor who graduated from a high school in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 2004, had to do his own research to uncover that history, including borrowing a copy of Alex Haley’s “Roots” from an English teacher.
“It was 10th or 11th grade … there was a shelf in the back [of the classroom] and the entire shelf was the book ‘Roots,’” he said. “But we never talked about anything like that.”
Efforts to improve history education moved slowly. Lost Cause mythology came under sustained fire from academic historians starting in the 1950s, but that research took decades to reach classrooms. After a long court fight, Mississippi in 1980 adopted the textbook “Conflict and Change,” which confronted lynching and the dehumanizing aspects of slavery in ways previous textbooks had not. Later textbooks provided more information about slave life and abandoned earlier whitewashings of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
But change came slowly. Textbooks that said Black Southerners were content to be second-class citizens were in use in Virginia well into the 1980s. Mississippi students were not required to learn about the civil rights movement before 2011.
Most state curricula today encourage or require the teaching of slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement. But arguments continue about how to teach Black history. Natalie Keefer, an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana Lafayette who teaches curricula development, encourages students to take a broad view of the subject.
“If all Black students are hearing about their history is enslavement, enslavement, enslavement, then they’re not hearing about the civil rights movement,” she said. “They’re not hearing about the education that started to blossom and bloom in Louisiana during Reconstruction, and they’re not hearing about other things,” she said.
Darrell Cobbins, the only Black member of the Tennessee State Board of Education, wants history to hit home for students and said part of learning it is putting it in the context of today and using it to inform society.
“I think, generally speaking, part of learning history is that you have to acknowledge that particular period of time and what is happening and what is going on, but you do it through the lens of today,” Cobbins said. “If you juxtapose that respective period, whatever it is in history to today’s time, and ask students to evaluate the values and norms of society and the values and norms of society of today you allow them to come to their own understanding and their own values of right and wrong.”
Some teaching methods have brought sharp criticism. Two Tennessee teachers resigned in 2019 after asking students to imagine themselves as slaveholders and “create a list of expectations for your family’s slaves.” Another school district in the state faced a lawsuit after a student-teacher used a supposed 1712 speech on “how to make a slave” in class.
Teachers also face time pressures and testing demands that can make it difficult to cover any topic in-depth.
“The No. 1 complaint I hear from students who become teachers is, ‘We don’t have the time to do it,” said Tony Daspit, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor. “The question teachers have to ask is, ‘What knowledge is of most worth? You can’t cover everything.”
But an understanding of this history can be critical. Daniel Kiel, an attorney and filmmaker who produced a documentary about the integration of Memphis Public Schools, said learning the history was life-changing for him, and helps connect present struggles with past ones.
“When you unpack these topics (like segregated schools or housing) and recognize that it’s not by accident, but that there is a reason that things are the way they are, then there’s a need to question,” Kiel said. “Even middle-schoolers and high-schoolers respond to things they can connect to. …They’ll start to ask, ‘Why does my neighborhood look the way things are versus another neighborhood?'”
Contributing: Bonnie Bolden of the Monroe (La.) News-Star; Leigh Guidry of The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La.; Misty Castile of the Hot Springs (Ark.) Village Voice; Meghan Mangrum of The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn.; and Luke Ramseth of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Southern history textbooks: A long history of deception