There it sat on a library cart with 50 other elementary, grammar, and high-school history textbooks, its bright red spine reaching out through time and space. As I opened the book’s crisp white pages, it all came back. My loud gasp startled those near me at the special collections department of Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library. Exploring the New World — published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965 — had been assigned in my fifth-grade social-studies class in Saratoga, Calif.
As part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the modern civil-rights era, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in textbooks. I imagined a quick look. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard’s collection of nearly 3,000 U.S. history textbooks, dating from about 1800 to the 1980s. Without intending, I had become engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught for generations.
After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: “The White Man’s History.” Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as “ignorant negroes,” as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.
The assumptions of white priority, white domination, and white importance underlie every chapter and every theme of the thousands of textbooks that blanketed the country. This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture. And while the worst features of our textbook legacy may have ended, the themes, facts, and attitudes of supremacist ideologies are deeply embedded in what we teach and how we teach it.
Scholars often bemoan their lack of influence: embarrassing book sales figures and the like. Yet my review of American textbooks revealed that historians of the 20th century exerted an enormous impact on the way Americans have come to understand their history. `The results are painfully evident. Their work either filtered down into schools, as interpreted by educators, administrators, and popular authors, or appeared directly: Ph.D.-trained scholars wrote many of the textbooks I read. To appreciate why white supremacy remains such an integral part of American society, we need to appreciate how much it suffused our teaching from the outset.
Noah Webster’s History of the United States (1832) is distressingly typical of most U.S. history textbooks published before the Civil War. Webster, of dictionary fame, once told the black minister and abolitionist leader Amos G. Beman that “wooly haired Africans” have “no history, & there can be none.” Webster dismissed Africans as nonentities and elevated Puritans, especially Connecticut Puritans, to the level of founding fathers. His book made only passing mention of colonies (later states) below Mason-Dixon and completely ignored slavery. History, for Webster, was the record of his Puritan forbearers, and no others. The standard of whiteness-in-history had been set.
Until 1860, no American history textbook ever mentioned the name of an abolitionist or even the existence of an antislavery movement. If slavery was mentioned at all, the discussion focused on Congress and on political leaders like Henry Clay. History took place in European exploration, colonization, revolution, Constitution-forming, party politics, and presidential administrations — and nowhere else.
The Connecticut-born Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who sometimes wrote as “Peter Parley,” may have been the most successful textbook author and writer of the mid-19th century. He claimed to have published 170 volumes, selling seven-million copies. He also boasted that his Pictorial History of the United States, originally published in 1843 and still in print after the Civil War, sold 500,000 copies. His 1866 edition simply tacked on a new chapter about the war, but his textbook neglected to discuss the fall of slavery. The message to students: Black lives do not matter.
There are exceptions, of course. From the 1870s and to the early 1900s some textbooks, such as ones by the abolitionist and colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; by the Canadian-born author, newspaper editor, and librarian, Josephus Nelson Larned; by the great Civil War reporter Charles Carleton Coffin; or especially by the Harvard University historian Albert Bushnell Hart, treat the abolitionist movement sympathetically. They see it as an agent of democracy and its membership as unpopular Cassandra’s, men and women who stood up to slavery and created the constituencies that Lincoln and his fellow Republican politicians used to resist the South. Given the era and available resources, these authors presented history fully and inclusively, even giving space to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.
Arthur C. Perry and Gertrude A. Price’s two-volume American History (1914), a grammar-school text, helped explain the life of slaves by employing an image of gleeful “negroes” at their cabin’s door after a day’s work, enjoying getting “together for a rollicking time.” But for generations of students, the textbooks of the Columbia University historian David Saville Muzzey shaped their understanding of the central crisis of American history. With over 50 publications, his influence became pervasive, especially through his History of the American People, a heavily illustrated tome of 700 pages for high-school students, used relentlessly between 1927 and 1938, and for many decades after under various other titles.The hundreds upon hundreds of other textbooks, however, some providing sympathetic views of the abolitionists and even treating John Brown dispassionately, categorically reveal the authors’ real themes and prejudices when dealing with the history of Reconstruction. The worst chapter in almost every textbook published before the 1960s, these books repeated relentlessly and emphatically the phrase “ignorant negro.” Indeed, descriptions of the Reconstruction era in history textbooks published from about 1900 to the mid-1960s provide a stunning immersion in white arrogance, black incapacity, and nostalgia for the sweet days of slavery and Southern white racial domination.
For Muzzey, “the mutual provocation of the abolitionists and the ardent defenders of the slavery system” caused the Civil War, and the North bore prime responsibility for causing the South to secede through its relentless hostility to slavery. More to the point, Muzzey explained that Reconstruction proved an unmitigated disaster, setting the untutored former slaves against “the only people who could really help them … their old masters.” Instead, Northern radicals manufactured an “orgy of extravagance, fraud, and disgusting incompetence,” placing upon the South the “unbearable burden of negro rule.” This “crime of Reconstruction,” he wrote, would be the root cause of sectional bitterness that would endure “to the present day.”
Building on decades of scholarship scorning the Reconstruction era, a text by Gertrude Van Duyn Southworth and John Van Duyn Southworth, The Story of Our America, and adopted by the state of Indiana for the seventh and eighth grades, used an image of white-robed, galloping Klansmen (with similarly robed horses) borrowed from the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, to illustrate how the Klan and similar groups defeated corrupt carpetbag and scalawag governments and their Negro tools to restore respectable whites to their justly dominant position. And this text was published in 1951. While ending slavery was usually rendered in these textbooks as a glorious accomplishment, it all came to naught when intolerant and aggressive Radical Republicans seized control in a coup and forced black enfranchisement upon a prostrate South. Almost without exception the vast army of textbooks published before the 1960s instilled in generations of young American students a version of history no different than that found in Thomas Dixon Jr.’s pro-Klan The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), and usually not as well written.
Authors more familiar to current scholars and historians, such as Marcus Jernegan, Merle Curti, Ralph Henry Gabriel, Ralph Volney Harlow, and John D. Hicks, leading historians of their time, also crafted textbooks for junior high and high schools. Between 1931 and 1943, the Yale intellectual historian Ralph Henry Gabriel, along with Mabel B. Casner, a Connecticut high-school teacher, explained to students that the central problem of Reconstruction was that the former slaves “found that freedom could be a greater curse than slavery.” In Southern states under Republican rule, the “Negroes were ignorant, and most of the carpetbaggers were rascals.” Fortunately, however, white men organized secret societies to “fight the evils that surrounded them,” especially theft, which was “very common among those who had recently been slaves” and restored white power.
The University of California at Berkeley’s John D. Hicks, best known for his study of the Populist Movement, described slavery in his advanced textbook, A Short History of American Democracy (1943), as “By and large … a distinct advance over the lot that would have befallen him [the slave] had he remained in Africa.” Besides, Hicks suggests, where else could a people so untutored enjoy picnics, barbecues, singing, and dancing? The slaves’ “devotions [religion] were extremely picturesque, and their moral standards sufficiently latitudinarian to meet the needs of a really primitive people. Heaven to the Negro was a place of rest from all labor, the fitting reward of a servant who obeyed his master and loved the Lord. … [C]ohabitation without marriage was regarded as perfectly normal, and a certain amount of promiscuity was taken for granted. Slave women rarely resisted the advances of white men, as their numerous mulatto progeny abundantly attested.” Berkeley’s history department recalls Hicks’s enormous influence, classes with over 500 students, and the impossibility of estimating “the number of students whose knowledge of American history has been built on the Hicks histories, but it is certainly an immense number.”
That such rabid fiction could pass for history in 1943, or at any other time, still leaves me reeling. But such textbook “history” continued, largely ignoring the work of prodigious African American scholars like John Wesley Cromwell, George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, until the 1960s when new generations of black and white scholars transformed our understanding of the American past, and the place of race in it.
While I never forgot the book, its lessons, fortunately, made few lasting impressions upon me. Given the national outburst of race hate that has erupted, however, I have to wonder exactly what we are now teaching our children.And what of Exploring the New World,my fifth-grade textbook? Its painfully simplistic story never mentioned any abolitionists or even an antislavery movement. Slaves, on the other hand, proved necessary to pick cotton — “Who else would do the work?” the authors asked. Yet, people of the North did not believe that men and women “should be bought and sold.” In the end, the book took a reconciliationist approach to slavery and the Civil War, asserting that everyone was brave, everyone fought for principle, and Robert E. Lee represented all that is noble and heroic in American society. “His name is now loved and respected in both North and South. We know that he was not only a gallant Southern hero but a great American.”
According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching Hard History,” as a nation we have failed miserably in our responsibility to accurately and honestly teach about slavery. Only 8 percent of high-school students surveyed by the SPLC could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Few teachers and even fewer textbooks connect the nation’s slave past to the history of race relations, and nearly every single teacher and textbook surveyed avoided the subject of white supremacy as avidly as the school textbooks of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It would appear that despite the monumental outburst of scholarship produced since the mid-1960s, the way we teach history remains as lifeless as John Brown’s body. But as Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, observed in the introduction to “Teaching Hard History”: “Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines.”
History is far from a dead thing. “We carry it within us,” James Baldwin memorably remarked. We “are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frame of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”