Don’t reverse progress in teaching history honestly

Published 3:41 pm Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Our society has become far more open in recent years to the fact that race has been and remains a complicated and integral part of American history. A majority of Americans also accept the concept that gay, lesbian and transgender people have the legal as well as the moral right to live their lives as equals in society.

These and other social realizations and changes have become fuel for the latest culture wars that have deeply divided Americans, and this fall were called out to play a role in the statewide elections.

Wedge issues have become a mainstay in state and national politics, so their effective use during Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign came as no surprise. That those battles are being staged locally in School Board meetings, however, is tragic and, for those of us who support public education, frightening.

While gender identity and related issues have become part of the societal angst, race plays a pivotal role in much of what’s going on today, as it always has. We can’t change the past and we don’t own it, but we must live with its consequences. For white America, the consequence has often been privileges not enjoyed by many of our black neighbors. To deny that is to deny what we can see with our own eyes.

If we are to understand racial difference in all its manifestations, then teaching history accurately in school, as well as encouraging students to have honest discussions about racial differences are critical parts of that effort. Had those discussions and those history lessons been taught during my youth more than half a century ago, we might have progressed further than we have in racial understanding and comity.

Instead, the powers who governed Virginia and other Southern states for decades were determined to keep the races separate, and to do so, they had to perpetuate the myths that had justified slavery for two-and-a-half centuries, and then Jim Crow laws for the better part of another century.

Doing so took considerable effort. Shading, and too often obliterating, historic fact were crucial to the effort. That’s why Virginia, in the 1950s, had a series of history books written that painted slavery as a benign arrangement that actually benefited African Americans, rather than the inhumane institution it was. Those same books erroneously taught that the Civil War as having nothing to do with slavery.

In one of those Virginia history books, we were taught that “a feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes.”

We were not taught that, following the collapse of the tobacco industry in Virginia in the late 1700s, Virginia’s agricultural community struggled to find new sources of revenue, and that, for the half century leading up to the Civil War, a primary source of that revenue was the exportation of slaves, bred in Virginia and sold to plantations in the Deep South. When the importation of slaves from Africa became illegal, the price of locally grown slaves soared.

Nor, back then, did we learn about slaves who struggled to be free. We learned nothing about the remarkable network known as the Underground Railroad that shielded runaway slaves on their way to freedom in northern states and Canada.

We learned about “carpetbaggers” who came from the north and took advantage of poor whites after the Civil War, but we were not taught about the laws written throughout the South that were used to arrest freed blacks as “vagrants” if they had no money in their pockets, and then farmed them out to plantation owners for extended periods of time, thus nicely skirting the prohibition against slavery well into the 20th century.

Closer to our time, we learned nothing of the federal “red lining” of black communities that perpetuated and deepened the segregation of our urban areas and continues to hinder the progress of African Americans today.

There’s certainly room for discussion over what should or should not be taught in schools today, but thank goodness schools are teaching history more honestly now than they did in our time. And thank goodness children are being encouraged to talk with and learn from one another more than we ever were.

To try and reverse that will be a terrible mistake.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.