Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Happy slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks

Happy slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks

  • 0

In 1957, Fred Eichelman began teaching seventh-grade history in Roanoke County. He was using a shiny new state-commissioned textbook.

It wasn't long before Eichelman and even some students noticed some peculiarities.

The textbook said slaves were happy, often referring to them as servants. It glorified Confederates. And it said precious little about women beyond Martha Washington and Pocahontas.

"It makes you wonder how we got so many Virginians, with so few women," quipped Eichelman, now 82.

The book was "Virginia: History, Government, Geography," and it was one of a trio of state-commissioned texts – the others were for fourth grade and high school – that taught Confederate-friendly "Lost Cause" ideas to a generation of Virginians and cast the state's segregationist political leaders in a favorable light.

If you were a Virginian between fourth and 11th grades from 1957 to the 1970s, you may well have gotten a dose of this official state history. The books were estimated to reach more than a million students.

Why care about 50-year-old textbooks?

"The ideas expressed in the books, historically unfounded as many of them may be, are still widespread today. They crop up in the debate over Confederate monuments and in other realms of life," said Melvin Patrick Ely, a Bancroft Prize-winning historian at the College of William & Mary who focuses on African-Americans and the South.

As the civil rights movement intensified in the 1960s, the textbooks began to draw heavy criticism, largely for their depictions of slaves and post-Civil War African-Americans. Among other things, "Cavalier Commonwealth," the high school book, said a slave "did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job."

In another example of unexpected historical happiness, the seventh-grade book said contact between English settlers and Virginia's Indians resulted in "a better life for both the settlers and the Indians."

One common thread of the books was adulation of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"General Lee was a handsome man" who "sat straight and firm in his saddle," said the fourth-grade text, "Virginia's History." It added that Lee's horse, Traveller, "stepped proudly, as if he knew that he carried a great general."


State officials and legislators oversaw the writing of the books in the 1950s, when Virginia's political landscape was dominated by the segregationist Byrd organization, the Democratic power structure named for then-U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

A central theme of the books was the Lost Cause, a narrative – considered mostly mythical by historians – that holds that slaves were content and that Virginia could have dealt with slavery on its own if not for meddling Northerners whose actions led to the Civil War.

When the books were being developed, the Byrd organization was worried about some new unpleasantness: the civil rights policies of President Harry S. Truman.

There is a clear connection, said Adam W. Dean, a Lynchburg College historian who specializes in slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction: The Byrd organization wanted to tell a new generation that Virginians were justified – in the mid-1800s and again in the mid-1900s – in wanting to handle race-related issues on their own.

"Segregationists in very high offices in the state thought that they could use the Lost Cause version of the Civil War to support segregation," said Dean, who wrote about the textbooks in a 2009 edition of the Virginia Historical Society's scholarly "Virginia Magazine of History and Biography."

Dean added: "I think (those overseeing creation of the textbooks) believed this history. They didn't view themselves as lying to people."

Debate over the textbooks began almost immediately and even continues today. 

On, where the seventh-grade book is rare enough to sell for more than $100, one reviewer who used the text as a young teacher said: "This book was both informative and correct in how the history was presented. I am not racist and never have been. All slaves were not mistreated. ... My classes were integrated, and there were absolutely no problems using this textbook."

Another reviewer recalled the book "as very racist and somewhat sexist."

She added that when she got a copy in adulthood, "I subjected my husband and adult children to dramatic readings," such as: "Enslaved people were happy to be in Virginia and were better off than they would have been in Africa. Abolitionists lied about slavery in the South. ... After the Civil War, carpetbaggers and scalawags came down to Virginia to oppress white Virginians. However, some 'broad-minded' Northerners came to understand and appreciate true Virginia and came to agree that Negroes were not ready to govern themselves."

For very different reasons, both readers gave the book five stars.


Virginia's post-World-War II political leaders felt that children were largely ignorant of state history. Dean added that many politicians feared that Communists were making inroads in the state.

These 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.

The General Assembly created the Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission in 1950 to oversee the writing of the three books. Gov. John S. Battle appointed the commission's seven members, which included politicians, historians and educators.

Its chairman was Del. Cecil W. Taylor of Lynchburg, a Democrat with close ties to the Byrd organization, according to former teacher Eichelman, whose 1975 Virginia Tech doctoral dissertation in social studies supervision focused on the textbook controversy.

Each book had multiple authors, chosen by the publishers upon approval by the textbook commission. The authors included historians and teachers.

As the authors prepared drafts of the books, commission members suggested numerous changes, seeking to instill what Taylor called a "Virginia spirit" – a term that was never defined but that clearly included salutes to the Lost Cause narrative and the Byrd organization. 

"As the commissioners slogged through draft after draft of the textbooks – over the course of four years – they grew increasingly contemptuous of the authors, who seemed unable or unwilling to produce manuscripts that reflected the proper 'Virginia spirit,'" Carol Sheriff, another William & Mary historian, wrote in a 2012 study.

At one point, textbook commission members debated among themselves whether to use the word "stalemate" to describe the landmark Battle of Gettysburg, which halted Confederate advances in the North and forced Lee to retreat to Virginia from Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, Gettysburg was indeed labeled a defeat. Still, the seventh-grade book said that after the Confederate victory at Cold Harbor 11 months later: "Lee was still undefeated!"

There apparently also were debates over what to call that war between North and South. In the seventh-grade textbook, it's the War Between the States – a term favored by Lost Cause adherents, Dean said, because it indicates that Southern states had the right to secede.

In the high school book, the war is not named. But a key chapter in "Cavalier Commonwealth" is titled "Defense Against Invasion, 1861-1865."

The books didn't ignore slavery in their lead-ins to the Civil War, but there was also a lot of talk of states' rights and other issues. As Dean noted, most historians today believe "slavery caused the war, and the purpose of the Confederacy was to create a slave-holding republic."

Disputes over how to portray state history in "Cavalier Commonwealth" grew so heated that the textbook commission removed Longwood College professor Marvin W. Schlegel from his role as lead author. 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. 

Schlegel still retained an author credit, but he was replaced by W. Edwin Hemphill, a historian at the Virginia State Library. Hemphill ran into his own problems when he and co-author Sadie E. Engelberg, a Richmond history teacher, wanted to include an in-depth section on Massive Resistance – Virginia's campaign, beginning in 1956, against federally required school desegregation.

Massive Resistance never made it into the book, although one paragraph mentioned the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional.

"A reader of the textbook would not be aware that any controversy existed over integration if this were his only source of information," Eichelman wrote in his dissertation.

Hemphill said in The Times-Dispatch article: "At times I went farther than I wanted to on the Southern viewpoint, but I felt the good of the book as a whole was worth it."

After some early critics accused the fourth-grade book of peddling myths, one of the seventh-grade book's authors, Williamsburg teacher Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, defended creative storytelling.

"To explode the Pocahontas legend would be much like saying there is no Santa Claus," Jones said in a 1958 speech.


The textbooks were shipped to schools across Virginia in 1957, two years behind schedule. Some black educators took issue with them almost from the start, but criticism from parents, educators and news organizations expanded in the 1960s.

In 1966, a piece in The Washington Post said the books presented "a magnolia-scented adaptation of Camelot" with "more romance than history."

A major point of contention was the depiction of content, well-cared-for slaves – a notion that persists today.

What was the truth? William & Mary's Ely said that on one end of the spectrum – on exceedingly rare occasions – a master took an enslaved woman as his de facto wife, brought her to live with him in the “big house” and sent the couple's mixed-race children to schools in the North.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ely said, were sadistic owners who tortured and even murdered slaves, with little response from authorities. Those also represented a minority of owner-slave relationships, but a larger one.

Ely said that in the vast middle were owners, almost all of whom – while not sadistic – resorted to whipping and other punishments, kept slaves in degrading conditions, frequently engaged in sexual exploitation, and often broke up slave families.

"Even slave owners who wanted to keep families together often weren't in a position to do so" because of debts and other issues, Ely said. His own research turned up instances in Virginia of children as young as 3 or 4 being taken from their parents and sold.

Enslaved people did in fact sing, tell folktales, worship God and do other things that brought them comfort and pleasure, developing a rich culture despite their bondage, Ely said.

Lynchburg's Dean said slavery "was brutal, even though masters liked to talk about how their slaves loved them and how they were family. I think in their heart of hearts, they knew that wasn't true. The institution depended on brute force and the law to remain intact."

The fourth-grade book was highlighted in the 2007 memoir "Dream Not of Other Worlds," by the late Huston Diehl, about teaching in the all-black Morton Elementary School in Louisa County in 1970. The white woman, then 21, had never lived in the South.

"I understood how crazy, how wrong it was to ask my students to read a history that endorsed the very Confederacy that fought to keep their people enslaved," Diehl wrote.

Years later, she found a copy of the book and was surprised to see that it was published in 1956.

"I had always assumed it must have been written in the 1930s or 1940s, not ... when the modern civil rights movement was seriously challenging Jim Crow," Diehl wrote.


After a six-year run, the textbook commission disbanded shortly before the textbooks went to schools in 1957.

The GOP's Linwood Holton became governor in 1970, and his administration clamped down on the books. They were allowed to be phased out, however, and some were still in use in the late 1970s.

Today, local school systems design their own history curricula, which have to adhere to state standards, said state Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle. Textbooks are reviewed by teachers and other experts. The state superintendent of public instruction recommends textbooks for approval based on those reviews.

It's unclear how much young Virginians retained from those earlier state-commissioned histories. What is clear is that many baby boomers got heavy doses of the Lost Cause narrative from these books, as well as from popular culture and other sources. 

William & Mary's Ely, 65, studied from the fourth- and the seventh-grade books while attending the old Westhampton School in Richmond. "I think the books are as much a symptom as they are a vector for the misconceptions we may have," he said.

In her study, William & Mary's Sheriff said the three textbooks and the controversy they spawned have not faded from memory.

"I have been struck by the number of people who, when they have seen my copies of the state-commissioned Virginia histories, have remarked that they remember them from their childhoods," she said.

On a recent day in Richmond, two middle-aged women strolled down Monument Avenue to get a close-up look at the 61-foot-tall memorial to Lee. The women chatted pleasantly with two strangers, and then the talk turned to the cause of the Civil War.

It was about secession, not slavery, one of the women said.

Confident in her view, she added: "People need to learn their history."


Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News