In Richmond, a commission appointed by the mayor has recommended that the statue of Jefferson Davis should come down but the others on Monument Avenue should remain, but reinterpreted with new signs. In Charlottesville, well, we all know about Charlottesville. In Roanoke, a committee has recommended that the school board rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
All this has prompted the customary retort that “we shouldn’t remove history; we should teach it.” That’s actually the argument by both sides in the debate over Confederate symbols, which, of course, raises the question: Which history are we talking about?
In time, everything gets abbreviated. There are lots of fascinating details and nuances that get left out. The Civil War is particularly interesting because usually history gets written by the winners. In the South, it was written by the losers. The history that Southerners were taught was a peculiarly sanitized version of events that essentially amounted to propaganda and occasionally outright lies. Consider, for instance, the state’s official history textbook that was in use well into the 1970s. Here’s some of what schoolchildren of that era were taught about some of the defining moments of Virginia history — please pardon some of the outdated language:
On slavery: “It was not difficult for the Negroes to adjust themselves to Virginia life. They had worked hard in Africa, and so the work on the Virginia plantations did not hurt them. . . . The Negroes learned also to enjoy the work and play of the plantation.”
“It is true, of course, that life in early Virginia was not easy for the Negro. He liked Virginia, however, for the same reason that the white man liked it. Virginia offered a better life for the Englishmen than England did, and it offered a better life for the Negroes that did Africa.”
“A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes.” In many places, the textbook referred to the enslaved population as “servants.” As evidence of how warmly slave-owners treated their human property, the textbook pointed out that slaves “were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments.” An entire chapter is devoted to how well slaves were treated: “Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy.” There was no discussion about the loss of liberty and dignity that was the essence of slavery.
On the abolition movement: Abolitionists are described in harsh terms, accused for spreading “false charges” about mistreatment of slaves. “We have already seen that the Abolitionists were mostly Northerners who owned no slaves but wanted to free the slaves of others at once without paying for them. . . the Abolitionists paid no attention to the losses the slaveholders would suffer . . . they showed that their hatred of slavery was only a little more fierce than their hatred of slaveholders.” The Abolitionists were “insulting” and “proposed measures in Congress which would have taken away many of the rights of the Southern states and robbed them of their property” — without mentioning that this “property” consisted of fellow human beings.
On secession: Virginia’s leaders were “statesmen” while Abraham Lincoln “threatened to invade Virginia and use force to interfere with the state’s own affairs. Then Virginia acted in a manner worthy of the statesmen who in the past had defended her rights.” The constitutionality of secession gets scant attention.
On the Civil War: Virginia “led her sister states of the South in the battle to preserve Southern homes, the Southern way of life, and the State’s rights under the Constitution.” There is nothing to suggest that “the Southern way of life” was based on slavery. The chapter on the Civil War is titled “Virginia Defends Herself,” with sub-sections headed “Defense Against Invasion” and “Virginia Invaded.” There is no discussion of Lincoln trying to hold the union together, only that “President Lincoln was determined to cripple the Confederacy as much as possible.” The federal government is repeatedly called “the enemy.” Confederate leaders are universally praised. “Robert E. Lee represented the best of Virginia’s traditions and ideals.” Stonewall Jackson was “a great soldier” and “a great leader.” Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, was praised for making the White House of the Confederacy “a center of gracious hospitality.” Union leaders are simply named with no modifier, good or bad. The Battle of Gettysburg is described entirely from the Southern point of view: “The assault had failed — but as long as the glorious deeds of men are told, Pickett’s charge will be remembered.”
On Reconstruction: There is a fairly extensive discussion of how Virginia’s post-war governments included many African-Americans, although that was not the terminology used in the textbook. This was also presented in a negative light. “The more broad-minded Northerners, after they came in close contact with the Negroes, came to understand Virginia’s point of view.” You can imagine what point of view might be. There is no mention how, after Reconstruction ended, Virginia effectively disenfranchised not just black voters, but many whites, as well. The notorious 1902 convention that re-wrote the state’s constitution to ensure rule by a white elite is framed in positive terms: “The purpose of the convention was to correct certain undesirable parts of the Underwood Constitution of Reconstruction days.” The textbook doesn’t mention that those “undesirable parts” meant allowing African-Americans (and poor whites) to vote. “The convention’s one hundred members were able and sincere men determined to make a good and practical constitution for their state.” In fact, “the constitution of 1902 has pleased the people so well that today, with certain changes, it remains the supreme law of the land.” Those “people” would be white people, and then only a particular faction of white people. There’s no mention that the 1902 Constitution was simply proclaimed, never put to a vote.
On civil rights: There is no mention of the Jim Crow era and what that entailed. In fact, the word “segregation” never appears in the textbook. There is, however, a reference to how Virginia guaranteed public schools “but the white and Negro children did not have to go to the same school.” Segregation is implied as a benefit. This is what Virginians were taught — or not taught — within living memory. A lot of history simply got erased without a single statue coming down.
Monday: A look at how Virginia’s textbooks came to be.