Teaching White Supremacy: How Textbooks Have Shaped Our Attitudes On Race

11/19/2017 09:34 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2017
The front door of Hurley High School in Hurley, Virginia circa 2015
Courtesy of USA Today
The front door of Hurley High School in Hurley, Virginia circa 2015

Sometimes the answers to our most perplexing questions are right in front of us. How, for instance, could it be that our continuously-evolving society is more divided than ever over skin color and cultural identity when we just had a two-term, black President? Is the media turning white citizens against black citizens or it is caused by the ambitions of opportunistic politicians who promise to get tough on crime and clean-up the community? Maybe it’s the fault of an extreme fringe of fanatics; both black and white? Or could it be that we’re simply incapable of controlling our own prejudices because they’re written into our DNA?

In an effort to find answers about racial conflict in America, I went to Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, which is led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ok, I didn’t literally go to Harvard, but let’s suspend disbelief for just a few minutes.) An extensive study, undertaken by one researcher, seems to suggest that a big part of our problem is related to the way in which most of us were educated. Dr. Donald Yacovone has a very interesting take on the subject. First, his credentials:

Donald Yacovone, an Associate at Harvard University's Hutchins Center, earned his Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate University and has taught at Pitzer College, the University of Arizona, and Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He was an editor at the Black Abolitionist Papers project before becoming the senior associate editor at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he founded and edited The Massachusetts Historical Review and organized many public history programs in the Boston area. Dr. Yacovone is an expert in Victorian manhood, the antislavery movement, and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He has published eight books, most recently, Wendell Phillips, Social Justice, and the Power of the Past (2016) and, with Prof. Gates, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013).

Dr. Donald Yacovone
Courtesy of Harvard University
Dr. Donald Yacovone

Robert: Donald, how did you get started down the path of understanding what is perhaps a key source of racial divisiveness in America today?

Donald: I began this research as part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement. The Liberator’s Legacy: Memory, Abolitionism, and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1865-1965 aims at assessing the impact of William Lloyd Garrison and his antislavery colleagues, both black and white. I am looking at how the Garrison children and grandchildren; the founders of the NAACP like Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and W.E.B. Du Bois; John Jay Chapman; and William Monroe Trotter and the Boston African American community depended upon and employed the legacy of the antislavery movement to create the modern civil rights movement. As part of that project, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in our school textbooks. I imagined a quick look and then a deep plunge back into a series of manuscript collections for The Liberator’s Legacy. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education’s collection of nearly three thousand US 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 in our nation’s school books from 1839 to the 1980s. After reviewing my first fifty 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 children 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 a problem, only as “ignorant negroes,” as “slaves,” and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the real subjects of this written 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 schools of our country. This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture and must be a central concern of every one of us, regardless of age. 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. It is a matter made even more challenging, not less, today because of the replacement of paper texts with the internet.

As historians, we often bemoan our lack of influence: embarrassing book sales figures and the like. Yet, as my review of our nation’s textbooks revealed, historians of the twentieth century exerted an enormous impact on the way modern Americans have come to understand their history. The results are painfully evident. Their work either filtered down into the schoolbooks, as interpreted by educators, professors of education, and school administrators, sometimes through popular authors, or appeared directly as Ph.D.-trained scholars actually wrote the school books I read. The results of that considerable influence we can see today in cities and towns from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Berkeley, California. To appreciate why white supremacy remains such an integral part of current American society, we need to appreciate how much it suffused our teaching from the outset.

This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture and must be a central concern of every one of us, regardless of age.

Robert: What are some of the earliest and most influential textbooks that helped lay the foundation for white supremacy in our educational system?

Donald: Noah Webster’s History of the United States (1832), unexpectedly published in Louisville, Kentucky, is distressingly typical of most US 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, for these authors, took place in European exploration, colonization, Revolution, Constitution-forming, party politics, and presidential administrations—and nowhere else. The Connecticut-born Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who sometime wrote as “Peter Parley,” may have been the most successful textbook author and writer of the mid-nineteenth century. He claimed to have published 170 volumes, selling 7 million copies. He also boasted that his Pictorial History of the United States, originally published in 1843 (also in Louisville, KY) and still in print after the Civil War, sold 500,000 copies. His 1866 edition simply tacked on a new chapter about the war to the old edition, but his textbook neglected to discuss the fall of slavery. Thus, the message to students: black lives do not matter.

Robert: In researching as many textbooks as you have, did any of them give a sense that black lives do matter?

Donald: There are exceptions, of course, and I intend to focus on them when I complete my larger study in a year or two. Textbooks published occasionally in the 1870s and into the early 1900s, 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; 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, but as 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 the limited available resources, these authors presented history more fully and inclusively than any other, even giving space to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

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. When authors came to write about Reconstruction, inevitably the worst chapter of almost every textbook published before the 1960s, they repeated relentlessly and emphatically the phrase "ignorant negroes" to describe the freed people who struggled to find a future amid the embattled landscape and intractable resistance of Southern whites. Indeed, reading our textbook history of Reconstruction from about 1900 to the mid-1960s is a stunning immersion in white arrogance, black incapacity, and nostalgia for the sweet days of slavery and Southern white racial domination.

Arthur C. Peary and Gertrude A. Price’s two volume American History (1914), a grammar school text, helped explain the life of enslaved people by employing an image of gleeful “negroes” at their cabin’s door after a day’s work, enjoying getting “together for a rollicking time.” (135) But for generations of students, the innumerable textbooks of the Massachusetts-born, Columbia University historian David Saville Muzzey (1870-1965) shaped their understanding of the central crisis of American history. With over fifty 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. For Muzzey, “the mutual provocation of the abolitionists and the ardent defenders of the slavery system” (275-77) caused the Civil War and the North bore prime responsibility for causing the South to secede by 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.” (402-22)

Robert: Wow. To say Muzzey’s book was “used relentlessly” invokes imagery of these ideas being pounding into the brains of a generation of children.

Donald: You bet. While I knew the history of how previous historians rendered this past, reading these school texts made me feel like a witness to a horrible crime and unable to stop it. Building on decades of toxic 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 7th and 8th grades, used an image of white-robed, galloping Klansman (with similarly robed horses) borrowed from the 1915 film 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 dominate position. And this text was published in 1951. While ending slavery was usually characterized 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 The Leopard’s Spots (1902), and usually not as well written.

<u>The Story of Our America</u>, by Gertrude and John Van Duyn Southworth
Courtesy of Donald Yacovone
The Story of Our America, by Gertrude and John Van Duyn Southworth

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 formerly enslaved people “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 like the Klan to “fight the evils that surrounded them,” especially theft, which was “very common among those who had recently been slaves” and restored white power. (Exploring American History, 501-05). The University of Chicago’s Marcus Jernegan’s The Growth of the American People (1934), relied on the noxious scholarship of Claude Bowers, George Fort Milton, and even Thomas Dixon, Jr. He described the Freedmen’s Bureau as an organ for “race hatred,” but the Ku Klux Klan appeared as the bulwark against Carpetbag corruption. According to Jernegan, the Klan did little more than play on the “superstitious fears of the negroes” and scared them at night by dressing in white sheets and shouting “Beware! The Great Cyclops is angry!” and thus discouraged blacks from voting. Accusations of real Klan violence, he asserted, were largely fabricated by carpetbaggers and scalawags. (543-44, 550)

The University of California’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 enslaved person] had he remained in Africa.” Besides, where else could a people so untutored enjoy picnics, barbecues, singing, and dancing? Enslaved peoples’ “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.” (291-92). 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.” (May T. Morrison, www.cdlib.org) 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 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.

I have to wonder exactly what we are now teaching our children.

Robert: I know that some blatant examples of white supremacy in textbooks continue to emerge today. A certain McGraw-Hill textbook, for instance, identified enslaved Africans being brought to America as migrant workers and a Mexican American Heritage textbook portrayed Mexican American laborers as lazy and said that “drinking on the job could be a problem” for them.

Aside from the academic intrigue, how has this project touched you personally, Donald?

Donald: At the beginning of my research, among a stack of fifty other elementary, grammar, and high school history textbooks, a bright red spine reached out to me through time and space. As I opened the book’s crisp white pages, it all came back. My loud gasp aroused those near me at the Special Collections Department of Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library. Exploring the New World, by O. Stuart Hamer, Dwight W. Follett, Benjamin F. Ahlschwede, and Herbert H. Gross—published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965—had been assigned in my fifth grade social studies class in Saratoga, California.

Its painfully simplistic story never mentioned any abolitionists or even an antislavery movement. The enslaved, 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.” (261-62). 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, gallant, 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.” (264-67) While I never forgot the book, fortunately, its lessons made few lasting impression upon me. Given the national outburst of race hate that has just erupted, however, I have to wonder exactly what we are now teaching our children.

Robert: Thank you, Donald, for sharing this critical research about the influence of white supremacy in our textbooks.

Follow me on Twitter @RobertjBenz

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