Those who defend Confederacy statues often contend that tearing them down amounts to “erasing history.”
Here’s a point that usually gets overlooked: A lot of history has already been erased.
More accurately, several generations of Virginians have effectively been brainwashed into believing a fake version of history. Those are strong words, but their strength stands on actual facts — detailed recently in a remarkable story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch by reporter Rex Springston.
His story — headlined “Happy slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks” — shines a harsh light on the history textbooks that were used in state schools from 1957 into the late 1970s. (You can credit the administration of Gov. Linwood Holton with ordering these books replaced, although it took years for some of them to disappear from classrooms.)
It’s not just that the textbooks were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, or even that they portrayed enslaved African-Americans as happy in their bondage — although that’s what Virginia students were taught. The high school textbook of that era instructed students that a slave “did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job.” Instead, Springston’s story details just how those textbooks were produced: They were state-sponsored propaganda intended to indoctrinate Virginia students into opposing the civil rights movement.
We think of propaganda as something that authoritarian regimes engage in. We forget — perhaps because we weren’t taught — that for much of the 20th century, Virginia was an authoritarian regime of a sort. Virginia was effectively a one-party state —that one party being a conservative Democratic Party, which restricted the electorate so much that the political scientist V.O. Key declared in 1950: “Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of Democracy.”
Come 1950, though, Virginia’s political oligarchs — the so-called “Byrd Machine” of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd – saw signs of change on the horizon, and signs of change meant signs of trouble. Most alarmingly, the federal government under President Harry Truman was starting to promote civil rights, which threatened to undermine the fundamental tenet of Southern politics.
Springston’s story says: “Lawmakers thought that requiring schoolteachers to promote the Byrd organization’s view of history would set students straight and keep teachers from spreading socialist or communist ideas.” Ironically, that’s no different than what the Bolsheviks did when they instituted communism in the Soviet Union — they taught students a different version of history.
In 1950, the General Assembly created the Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission to oversee the production of three new textbooks — for fourth-graders, seventh-graders and eleventh-graders. Politicians, not scholars, were put in charge of producing the approved version of state history. The chairman was Del. Cecil Taylor of Lynchburg, a trusted Byrd lieutenant.
Taylor wanted the history books imbued with what he called “the Virginia spirit” — “a term that was never defined but that clearly included salutes to the Lost Cause narrative and the Byrd organization.” The textbooks downplayed the phrase “Civil War.” The seventh-grade textbook called the conflict of 1861-1865 “the War between the States,” because that implied the Southern states had a right to secede. The high school textbook didn’t give the war a name at all. Commission members debated whether to call the Battle of Gettysburg a “stalemate” until they finally had to concede it was, in fact, a defeat for the South.
The politicians in charge became frustrated because the authors they commissioned wouldn’t always go along with their preferred version of history. At one point the commission removed Longwood College professor Marvin Shelegel. Springston reports that “a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from the era said the commission felt that Schlegel, who was born in Pennsylvania, did not adequately reflect the Southern viewpoint.”
There was another debate over whether the Pocahontas story should be embellished for fourth-graders. The conclusion was yes. “To explode the Pocahontas legend would be much like saying there is no Santa Claus,” one of the more compliant authors said in 1958. Virginians were effectively taught fairy tales, on government orders.
Springston’s account is not the first time this story has been told, only the most widely-distributed. It draws on an account published online in 2017 by Fred Eichelman, a retired Roanoke County teacher whose 1975 doctoral dissertation examined the textbook controversy. Eichelman’s account is even more damning.
On the website Politichicks, Eichelman writes: “One former commission member admitted to me that the goal of the seventh grade book was to ‘make every seventh-grader aspire to the colonnaded mansion; and if he can’t get there, make him happy in the cabin.’ One of the authors informed me that she was told not to be concerned with exposing myths; that was the job of college teachers.
“An author for the high school textbook told me he was forced to put little emphasis on Native Americans and not mention any plights they may have had due to colonial rule. A whole chapter he devoted to them was deleted. He was also forced to deradicalize Nathaniel Bacon, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Any attempt to humanize Jefferson or relate how he was concerned that slavery would divide the nation would be an attack on the aristocracy. In relation to government there was to be no mention of the Byrd Organization or Machine and no mention of poverty or the poor. The Republican Party was to receive little mention with the exception of Abraham Lincoln who triggered the War Between the States. A Democrat commission member admitted that he personally wrote the government section.”
Keep in mind that Eichelman is not some liberal trying to haul down Confederate statues; he’s a conservative and Republican activist who portrays these textbooks as a classic Orwellian example of government trying to control what citizens think. “These books were in use for fifteen years and millions of young people were exposed to them,” he writes.
Is it any wonder that many Virginians have a faulty and incomplete history of their own state’s history?