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Students read during class in Montgomery, Alabama, April 1939.
Marion Post Wolcott via Library of Congress

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How history textbooks reflect America’s refusal to reckon with slavery

Textbooks have been slow to incorporate black humanity in their slavery narratives. And they still have a long way to go.

Four hundred years ago, a group of about 20 Africans were captured in the African interior, probably near modern-day Angola, and forcibly transported on a slave ship headed to the Americas. After tumultuous months at sea, they landed ashore in the first British colony in North America — Jamestown, Virginia — in late August 1619.

Hazen’s Elementary History of the United States: A Story and a Lesson, a popular early 20th-century textbook for young readers, picked up the story of the first black Virginians from there.

“The settlers bought them,” explained the 1903 text, “... and found them so helpful in raising tobacco that more were brought in, and slavery became part of our history.”

Its barebones lesson plan included just two easily digestible factoids for the year 1619: the introduction of the Africans — with an illustration of two half-naked black people standing on a beach before a pontificating pirate and a crowd of onlookers — and the creation of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first formal legislative body in the American colonies.

Hazen’s Elementary History of the United States: A Story and a Lesson, published in 1903, included very little about 1619 and the role slavery played in the formation of the United States.
Library of Congress

But the history of Jamestown and slavery isn’t that simple. Even though the 1619 landing wasn’t the first arrival of Africans in the Americas, it fits within the history of colonial America, black America, the global slave trade, and ultimately the foundation of our country. So how textbooks summarized this history — one characterized by a scant documentary record and often from the perspective of European settlers and white Americans — matters.

“Textbooks are supposed to teach us a common set of facts about who we are as Americans ... and what stories are key to our democracy,” said Alana D. Murray, a Maryland middle-school principal and author of The Development of the Alternative Black Curriculum, 1890-1940: Countering the Master Narrative.

As textbooks show — through omissions, downright errors, and specious interpretations, particularly regarding racial issues — not everyone enjoys the perks of civic belonging or gets a fair shake in historical accounts. This is even true of textbooks used today — 400 years after Africans’ 1619 arrival, more than 150 years after emancipation — with narratives more interested in emphasizing the compassion of enslavers than the cruelty endured by the enslaved.

Textbooks have long remained a battleground in which the humanity and status of black Americans have been contested. Pedagogy has always been preeminently political.

From fast facts to black inferiority: how slavery has been portrayed historically in textbooks

The Hazen’s textbook framed Jamestown and its role in the development of US slavery as an inevitable matter of labor demand and economic pragmatism, a common argument in US school materials at the turn of the 20th century.

Yet that was just one school of thought. After slavery’s end in this country, many Southern-focused textbooks promoted a Lost Cause approach to Jamestown and slavery writ large, portraying the institution as part of a natural order. White Southerners created ideologically driven narratives that yearned for the Good Ole Days where whites sat atop the hierarchy and African Americans were faithful slaves. In this racist revisionism, they didn’t have to reckon with the new black citizen, voter, or legislator as nominal equals.

Somewhat typical in this distorted history was A Child’s History of North Carolina, circa 1916, which also focused on slavery’s profitability and erased its violence. In this view, the enslaved people were happy, and Southern slave owners were reluctant masters at best.

According to the book, enslaved people “were allowed all the freedom they seemed to want, and were given the privilege of visiting other plantations when they chose to do so. All that was required of them was to be in place when work time came. At the holiday season they were almost as free as their masters.” Moreover, “most people in North Carolina were really opposed to slavery and were in favor of a gradual emancipation. Slavery was already in existence, however, through no fault of theirs. They had the slaves and had to manage as best they could the problem of what to do with them.”

Furthermore, the book argued that abolitionists — never a huge voting bloc — were responsible for electing Abraham Lincoln, and that their unspecified violence made the South “indignant.”

Some Northern writers tried their hand at what they believed was a more nuanced approach in revising children’s history books in light of emancipation. And that included how they talked about that slave ship arriving in Virginia and the people aboard.

The 1886 textbook Children’s Stories of American Progress condemned slavery as immoral but also portrayed Africans as inferior to Europeans.
Library of Congress

Take the example of Children’s Stories of American Progress, published in 1886. Northern white writer Henrietta Christian Wright, known for her popular stories of fairies and magic, described that day in August 1619 as a time when the meadows alongside the James River were “beautiful with summer” — a sight lost on the African captives.

However, Wright also imagined eyes that “looked wearily out from the port-holes of the ship” and saw a new landscape that “only seemed dreary and desolate, a land of exile and death.” She alternated between seeing through their eyes with being the omniscient narrator viewing them from above. She implicated European powers for turning Africa into “the great hunting-ground” and capitalizing off internecine struggles on the continent. Yet the plunder that carried Africans “like dumb beasts across the Atlantic” was “all because the white man chose to use his greater intelligence to oppress instead of befriend them.”

Wright didn’t skimp on moralizing about slavery as an evil, unsuitable enterprise for a putatively Christian nation, but she didn’t see Africans as Europeans’ peers, either. Her portrayal of the inferiority of black people reflected a common belief among white Americans, even some former abolitionists. Accounts like hers shaped how generations of white Americans thought about their black compatriots and, according to a rising cadre of black educators, how black Americans who read such textbooks thought about themselves.

Black voices enter the textbook industry after the Civil War — but barely disrupt it

The benevolent racism that infected textbooks also inspired a new generation of history writers who wanted to inject less bias and more accuracy into instructional materials. African Americans, often women teachers or laypeople with little formal training, began authoring textbooks and creating history pageants that spanned centuries with song, speech, and dance in the decades after the Civil War.

“You have these big textbooks that were in schools, but they had nothing to do with what black people are writing. Black history textbooks and black people had a totally different view of citizenship [in the late 1800s to mid-1900s],” Murray said.

She became interested in how black people wrote their own history when her graduate class on teaching social studies failed to even mention the father of what became Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. Shocked by the glaring omission, Murray began researching and found women like Dorothy Guinn, a YWCA director, who co-wrote Out of the Dark (1924), a pageant in which spectators and its high school performers got a theatrical tour through the slave trade in Africa, Reconstruction, and then-contemporary moments.

A character named the Chronicler intones about Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, and Sojourner Truth. She gets an assist from musical numbers like “Go Down, Moses,” Paul Laurence Dunbar poems, and muse-like characters called the Children of Genius, who represent music, literature, science, and art. They are her Greek chorus, there to enlighten with well-placed tidbits of information.

An illustration from the 1914 book The Negro in American History, written by John W. Cromwell, depicts the brutality of the slave trade. In the late 19th and early 20th century, black people began writing textbooks to counteract the benevolent racism in books published by white authors.
Library of Congress

The zeal to correct and counter other people’s accounts of black history motivated people like North Carolina’s Edward A. Johnson, a black lawyer who released his own textbook, A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619-1819 in 1890.

In his preface, he wrote of his 11 years teaching and observing “omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro. … But how must the little colored child feel when he has completed the assigned course of U. S. History and in it found not one word of credit, not one word of favorable comment for even one among the millions of his foreparents who have lived through nearly three centuries of his country’s history!”

Leila Amos Pendleton, a former Washington, DC, teacher, expressed similar sentiments in her A Narrative of the Negro. Dating to 1912, it preceded Woodson’s 1933 pioneering Mis-Education of the Negro, which railed against the American educational system’s failure to teach accurate black history.

Pendleton reframed the Jamestown arrival of those first African Virginians, putting it in a diasporic context that discussed African civilizations (an oxymoron, according to many white authors), the African presence in Mexico, slavery in Muslim countries, and the systematic abuse of indigenous peoples in the colonies.

She also made a direct emotional appeal to black children: “PICTURE to yourselves, dear children, a small group of foreigners frightened and sad, with hearts aching for home and for the loved ones from whom they had been torn …. The early part of the seventeenth century belongs to the dark ages of the world’s history, to the time when men had not yet understood that it is the right of every human creature to be free and that it is the solemn duty of every man and every race to help toward true freedom every other man and every other race.”

LaGarrett King, a professor and founding director of the University of Missouri’s Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education, said it’s hard to know how widely used such texts were. He can say Johnson’s was used in a black Raleigh, North Carolina, high school. Murray, the Maryland principal and scholar, pointed out that Pendleton’s was advertised in the NAACP magazine the Crisis, and that she likely had an unusual advantage: Her husband owned the publishing outfit that produced her book.

But their explicitly political versions of history, which recounted a black past that was more than slavery and sometimes had its own share of romanticism, couldn’t dislodge decades — centuries, really — of white supremacy via textbook. It couldn’t stop such ideologies from being circulated in American schools, even in more recent decades.

From the civil rights movement to today, textbooks still leave a lot to be desired

Even in the heyday of the civil rights movement and beyond, textbooks still failed to capture the reality of what the enslaved endured through their perspective. “In the greater number of textbooks, slave life is pictured as a not too unpleasant condition; in fact, it was often described as having been rather nice in the sheer beauty of relationship between the slaveowner and the slaves,” wrote graduate student James O. Lewis, whose thesis on black representations in textbooks in 1960 influenced the NAACP’s efforts to revamp racist textbooks.

Lewis also concluded that instructional materials were quick to equate blackness with slavery, especially when writing about Jamestown. He noted that all textbooks in his sample included the arrival of the first Africans to Jamestown, and though he observed diversity in how the books described the Africans’ arrival, the majority insisted that slavery began with them in the Jamestown colony.

An outdated American history textbook seen at Brighton High School in Brighton, Colorado, in 2019.
Matthew Staver/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Lewis, however, supported the view of a minority of those textbooks that these involuntary migrants were indentured servants, a debate that continues today. In 1619, when the Africans arrived, Virginia had no legal framework for slavery in the colony, but moved in successive decades to cement slavery as a hereditary racial institution.

King said that, overall, textbooks have failed to clearly communicate the nuances, questions, and debates about the Africans’ status in early Virginia. And that’s part of a larger, existential problem.

“The way we teach K-12 black history is either oppression or liberation,” he said. “The majority of teachers know that 1619 is a year that we represent the first Africans [to come to British North America] on what would become US soil. But then what’s missing is what happened next. Then, in terms of black history, we just move on to slavery. A lot of textbooks now will center them as both [slaves or indentured servants], but the way we understand slavery is very vague. Our textbooks say they were sold for goods, but they could have been indentured and sold for goods, until their terms [of their labor contracts] were up.”

But few K-12 instructors know enough about the debate over the Africans’ status to be able to sort out what’s what, and many agree that textbooks they use are ineffective. A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” found that more than half of teachers (58 percent) polled weren’t happy with their textbooks and almost 40 percent said that their state offered little or no support for teaching about slavery.

King said there’s also the issue of what teachers themselves learned in the textbooks they read as students because “we regularly saw egregious and racist references to black people as late as the 70s.” The birth of black studies programs and the “new” social history, the popularity of Alex Haley’s Roots, and civil rights activism helped usher in curricular changes. The NAACP, for example, had a textbook committee that monitored how schoolbooks portrayed black communities and history. But sometimes, so did groups such as the Confederate Veterans of America, which released a 1932 report decrying one textbook’s portrayal of Jamestown as a raggedy settlement that didn’t compare well with New England’s early colonies.

Even if most textbooks are no longer overtly racist, it doesn’t mean pedagogy has sufficiently changed. Over the past decade, school districts around the country have come under fire for the way they teach slavery, including incorporating slavery references into math equations.

In 2012, an Atlanta elementary school posed this homework question: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week? Two weeks?” And just last year, San Antonio, Texas parents complained about a history homework assignment that asked eighth graders to list positive and negative aspects of slavery. Turns out the activity was directly tied to a textbook used by the school for about 10 years. Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States argued that all slaveowners were not cruel: “a few [slaves] never felt the lash,” and “many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.”

It’s no surprise then that, according to the SPLC report, only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed knew that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War, 12 percent understood slavery was important to the Northern economy, and just 22 percent could identify how the Constitution benefited slaveowners.

Textbooks remain a reflection of the political climate

Textbooks have been a part of the culture wars for a long time, said King. In the late 1990s, scholar Leah Wasburn analyzed slavery representation’s in US history textbooks used in Indiana, and she noted how the religious right influenced textbooks in the 1980s and’90s. During this period, there were more conservative references to how Christianity got the enslaved through hard times, as well as traditional family rhetoric that said the wives of slave owners (which assumed women weren’t slaveowners themselves) took care of the enslaved in motherly ways.

King explained, “It boils down to money and politics. One of the strategies of conservative politicians is taking over state school boards, where textbook policies are been adopted.” Seats on those boards are often appointed, and large states — those who can deliver big sales to publishing companies and may require school systems to buy particular textbooks — have a massive say in what content makes its way into student’s hands and minds.

Texas, for example, earned a reputation for inserting dubious information and interpretations about the nation’s creation, evolution, and slavery into its school books. In one case, Moses — he of the Ten Commandments — was listed as a Founding Father, and enslaved people were referred to as immigrant workers in a textbook caption a student flagged in 2015. And this is a problem that transcends the Lone Star state; as a New York Review of Books analysis of the state’s curricular curation stated in this epigram: “What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks.”

However, outcry has sparked some change: In late 2018, the Texas state school board decided that public school curricula should be changed to emphasize slavery as a primary cause of the Civil War, when it previously prioritized sectionalism and states rights; those changes are scheduled to go in effect this school year for middle and high school students.

But despite many Americans’ desire to see history as one straight line of progress — and that applies to the timeline of both America the country and American textbooks — King sees a future of hard work ahead.

There are still few textbook authors of color, and in K-12 “more than 80 percent of [public elementary and secondary] teachers are white,” King said. “The curriculum is still Eurocentric, despite the cosmetic diversity. We have quantitatively improved in diversifying the curriculum, though we haven’t qualitatively improved.” This is because so much of black history is defined only through contact with Europeans and American whites, he says.

He suggests intentional evidence-based reframing — which complicates assumptions that black people’s reasons for their actions were the same as white people’s. For example, instead of pointing to black Americans’ fighting on both sides of the American Revolution as mere proof of patriotism — as black Americans are constantly required to prove their fealty in history and contemporary politics — he points out blacks were promised freedom, directly or indirectly, if they took up arms.

Still, he explains there are more good resources for teachers to learn from and use today. This includes materials that aren’t hardbound texts, like the recent 1619 Project from the New York Times; Teaching Tolerance’s “Teaching Hard History” series, which has multiple episodes on slavery featuring accomplished scholars and has recently updated content on teaching K-5 students; and online readings lists about a variety of topics dealing with race, such as the Ferguson syllabus.

For her part, Murray says that as a former teacher and now an administrator, she’s always striving to create another alternative canon.

“There’s always a group of teachers who will teach the curriculum. But there’s one teacher in every department who’s engaged in upper-level discussions about how to create a curriculum that matters to their students. For them, it’s not just about how many facts they have to memorize; it’s about how to include LGBTQ history, for example.”

To push forward, she says educators must continue to pull from intellectual descendants like Leila Amos Pendleton, whom she calls “dream weavers and writers, people who were in front of children teaching them and writing for them.” As Murray notes, “They were imagining for them and for us.”

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @CynthiaGreenlee.


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