Textbook Racism

‘Teaching White Supremacy’
Portrait of John C. Calhoun by George Peter Alexander Healy, circa 1845 (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

While the North “won the Civil War, the white South...won the subsequent peace,” Donald Yacovone notes in Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity. That is, America’s only civil war (or its only such conflict so far, it now seems prudent to add) ended slavery and crushed the Confederacy, only to have many generations of Americans taught a version of events that might have pleased Robert E. Lee. The real story was unrecognizably distorted in nearly every aspect—from the nature of slavery to the causes of the war itself. As this exhaustively researched, eye-opening, profoundly sobering new book makes clear, that mangling of history has served to reinforce racism at the most fundamental level: through the stories and ideas we have passed on to our children.

Yacovone, an associate at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and the author (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.) of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, did not originally set out to write this book. Rather, as he recalls in his introduction, he wanted to learn how “the ‘collective’ or ‘popular’ memory of the original freedom struggle [i.e. the Civil War] helped create the modern civil rights movement.” As part of that project, he imagined looking through a handful of K–12 textbooks to get a sense of how abolitionism had been presented. Instead, he came across nearly three thousand textbooks—including one he remembered reading as a schoolboy—in which abolitionists, when mentioned at all, were often portrayed as the villains. “I found myself,” Yacovone writes, “immersed in a study of how slavery, race, abolitionism, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught in our nation’s K–12 schoolbooks from about 1832 to the present.”

Yacovone’s narrative highlights many influential developments and figures along the way. Citing the work of historians before him, Yacovone identifies the nineteenth-century statesman John C. Calhoun as having “more than anyone” borne “responsibility for the pro-slavery ideology that the South came to adopt.” Indeed, it was Calhoun who bolstered the idea that the “peculiar institution” had been “ordained by God.” Then there was the writer and publisher John H. Van Evrie, whom Yacovone singles out as “the father of white supremacy”—Van Evrie even popularized that phrase—and as “the nation’s first professional racist,” the one who “laid the white supremacist foundations of American democracy.” In a testament (a highly unfortunate one, in this case) to the power of a single person’s ideas, Van Evrie wrote and edited books, newspapers, and pamphlets that sought to reconcile America’s ideals of freedom and its practice of slavery. Van Evrie’s thesis was that slavery was necessary to ensure democracy among white people, whose freedom from toil allowed them to enjoy equality with one another. (Many nineteenth-century opponents of slavery, including the young Abraham Lincoln, favored colonization—sending African Africans elsewhere—over Black equality.)

The conclusion of the Civil War brought Reconstruction, the dozen-year period in which federal troops occupied the South to ensure Blacks’ rights and Blacks themselves worked hard and served as legislators. Following Reconstruction’s collapse—part of the deal worked out to resolve the contested 1876 presidential election—conditions for African Americans, who were again at the mercy of Southern whites, were little better than they had been during slavery. It will surprise many, Yacovone notes, to learn that a number of textbook writers of that era recorded the history of the war, slavery, and Reconstruction accurately and sympathetically, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Hezekiah Butterworth, Elisha Mulford, Charles Carleton Coffin, and the Englishwoman Mary Botham Howitt. From the 1870s until the first years of the twentieth century, their works enjoyed popularity.

The version of history taught to schoolchildren from the early twentieth century until the Civil Rights Era held that slavery was a benign system.

That was not to last. If democracy came about at the expense of Blacks, at least in Van Evrie’s conception, then so did the much-sought-after national reconciliation. For that to be realized, all had to agree on a version of events in which neither side of the American Civil War was wholly at fault. Thus, as reproduced in countless books, the version of history taught to schoolchildren from the early twentieth century until the Civil Rights Era held that slavery was a benign system, in which the enslaved worked a bit each day and then enjoyed music and dance come sundown; that slave masters treated their human property well, housing them and providing “health care”; that the enslaved, who otherwise would have been godless, benefited from an institution that introduced religion into their lives; that Blacks (sometimes referred to collectively as “Sambo”) were inferior to whites in just about every measurable way (an idea backed up by the “science” of the era); that the Civil War had been sparked by uncompromising, fanatical abolitionist “agitators” such as William Lloyd Garrison; that after graciously accepting defeat, the South had been punished under a corrupt system that included rule by incompetent, subhuman Blacks; and that the Ku Klux Klan, while its actions sometimes went too far, were in the main heroic, doing what had to be done to restore order. Not mentioned in these textbooks were the heroism of the 179,000 Black troops who fought for the Union Army, the violence visited upon African Americans, particularly in the South, after the war (“In one Louisiana parish a state authority stumbled across a pile of twenty-five dead Black Republicans,” Yacovone notes), or anything at all about such African American icons of the freedom struggle as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Consolidating this approach was James Shepherd Pike’s 1874 volume The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, a work that, according to Yacovone, “proved essential to the interpretation of Reconstruction that Americans would obtain from textbooks for the next eighty years.” Pike’s work constituted “the single most influential assault on the Emancipationist goals of the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

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Essentially, a national sense of identity was built on feeling superior to Black people. (European immigrants who did not necessarily think of themselves as being white in their home countries saw how things were in America and, in most cases, quickly got with the program.) As Yacovone phrases it, “history remained a mirror, not a microscope”; accounts of events were written not according to what had happened but according to what Americans needed to believe. That need could be deadly. Describing a phenomenon that is easy to observe today, Yacovone points out that in a society built on the idea of white supremacy, “the more freedom and success African Americans enjoyed, and the more accomplishments they displayed, the more apprehensive and distressed whites became.” That apprehension and distress have often been expressed through violence.

A number of developments in the twentieth century helped turn the nation’s ideas around. Whereas Nazi Germany had looked to the United States as a model of how to enforce racism, “the Nazi eugenocide took American racial ideals to their logical conclusion.” World War II and the subsequent Communist “challenge” forced Americans to acknowledge the hypocrisy of touting democracy and fighting xenophobia abroad while ignoring injustice at home. The Black American freedom movement, which had never ceased, flowered during the 1950s and 1960s, and books by African American scholars, such as Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1935), by W.E.B. Du Bois, and From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (1947), by John Hope Franklin, began to influence the way Americans thought of their nation’s great conflict. So, too, did the works An American Dilemma (1944), by Gunnar Myrdal, and The National Experience: A History of the United States (1963), by a team of historians that included C. Vann Woodward and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Still, the damage was hardly undone completely. With regard to the way American history is taught, Yacovone describes the current landscape as a mixed bag. The internet is a blessing and a curse, giving ready access to both accurate information and white supremacist websites. The evils of slavery are well documented, but the subject is often taught by those who themselves have little background—or even education—in history, resulting in such horrors as reenactments of slave auctions in which Black kids are traumatized by having to play the enslaved. For every in-depth effort to look honestly at the United States’ history of oppression (such as The 1619 Project, which began as a series of articles in the New York Times), there is an equal and opposite effort to denounce the teaching of material that might tarnish Americans’ view of their nation.

To come to the end of Yacovone’s well-written, enlightening, essential book is to think, no wonder. No wonder we find ourselves, as a nation, in such a sorry place, with no shortage of level-headed people predicting a second civil war. No wonder a strain of white supremacy persists in America despite eight years of a Black presidency—and no wonder that presidency was followed by four years under a racism-enabling demagogue who twice captured the majority of the white vote. A five-year-old white girl quoted in the book inadvertently put it best when she lamented, after an African-American family had moved away from her neighborhood, “Now, there is no one that we are better than.” 

Teaching White Supremacy
America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity

Donald Yacovone
Pantheon
$32.50 | 464 pp.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Clifford Thompson is the author, most recently, of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues.

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