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Williams: For two decades, Virginia textbooks fed baby boomers a bogus history of slavery. Why that matters today.

Williams: For two decades, Virginia textbooks fed baby boomers a bogus history of slavery. Why that matters today.


My parochial school did not force-feed me the bogus Virginia history that poisoned the minds of so many Virginians of my generation.

So I turned to my mom, a retired Richmond Public Schools teacher, for her memories of “Virginia: History, Government, Geography,” one of three state-commissioned textbooks whose fake take on history was detailed by Rex Springston in Monday’s issue of Discover Richmond magazine, produced by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The textbooks, commissioned by the state in 1957 — an era of burgeoning civil rights agitation and the resulting Massive Resistance — “taught Confederate-friendly ‘Lost Cause’ ideas to a generation of Virginians and cast the state’s segregationist political leaders in a favorable light,” Springston wrote.

These textbooks weren’t entirely purged from state classrooms until the late 1970s, he wrote. But the cottony euphemisms about the horrors of slavery remained evident in the textbook industry as recently as 2015, when a McGraw-Hill World Geography manual — in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration” — said the slave trade brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States.”

“Virginia: History, Government, Geography” was a seventh-grade textbook that, among its other transgressions, spun a fictional tale of contented slaves:

“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. In Africa they had known a form of slavery more stern than that of the Virginia plantations ...

“In his new home, the Negro was far away from the spears and war clubs of enemy tribes. He had some of the comforts of civilized life. He had better food, a better house, and better medical care than he did in Africa. And he was comforted by a religion of love and mercy.”

Of course, the state-sanctioned baloney in these textbooks didn’t fool my mom or her fellow teachers.

“We knew exactly what was going on,” she recalled Monday. “Yeah, we talked about it.”

Teachers had to hew to the curriculum but knew they couldn’t rely on the textbooks to convey an accurate history. “You just interjected what you knew. ... We let the kids know ... teachers knew what was in the textbooks and what was left out.”

But the teachers had to be careful in their classroom discussions. And they knew there was nothing they could do about the offensive textbooks.

“Those were terrible times,” she said.

And in that regard, they are the perverse gift that keeps on giving.

“These textbooks explain why so many in the South use the Lost Cause talking points — we were force-fed this in grade school on up,” said Alice Dunn Lynch, the former executive director of the Virginia Capitol Foundation.

“We were lied to by our own teachers!”

Ram Bhagat, an activist and retired Richmond educator, said a participant in a recent Emotional Emancipation Circle shared her “Virginia: History, Government, Geography” textbook.

The book “blew our minds last week because it’s a concrete example of the depth of the lie,” Bhagat said via text message. “I’m not sure why it hit me deeply, considering what’s been going on the past few years, along with the traumatic legacy of slavery.”

He called the textbook discussion timely as we prepare to commemorate the arrival of African captives at Jamestown 400 years ago, launching an era of black subjugation in America. “Until we change the narrative, our individual and collective lives as African Americans will never be valued!”

But how can we change a false narrative that has never truly gone away?

The monuments to the Lost Cause on Monument Avenue — unlike those in New Orleans — do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon amid cries to preserve “history.” The names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Hanover County are being retained by popular demand.

Yes, Richmond is in the process of changing the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School. But overall, how do you arrive at the historical truth in an environment filled with two competing narratives of slavery and the Civil War?

To get there requires that we undo the damage that this false narrative has inflicted upon us.

“It pushes really on three generations,” said Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum. “Baby boomers, who learned it. Gen Xers, who were at the tail end of it ... and to some degree, it pushed into the older millennials. They grew up with this from their parents and grandparents.”

The Massive Resistance-era push for pro-Confederate textbooks was nothing new, Coleman said, noting that former College of William & Mary President Lyon Gardiner Tyler had joined Georgia educator Mildred Lewis Rutherford’s crusade to create more pro-South textbooks decades earlier.

The false narrative was challenged in the 1980s “but not heavily,” she said. By then, the scrutiny focused on the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings.

Today, she said, those who learned history from those textbooks “are for the most part in positions of leadership and power now. It’s what they grew up hearing. It’s reinforced now.”

Coleman said there’s a time in life where youngsters solidify concepts, “a period of concrete learning, basically laying the brick over where the other learning will take place.”

If one of those pillars of learning is reinforced by family and landscapes, “it’s more than just a base of knowledge. It has now become for some so entangled in their value systems or belief systems ... breaking that cycle is extremely difficult.”

In that regard, the kicker to Springston’s piece is absolutely chilling. Virginia was the perpetrator of a state-sanctioned brainwashing that has left too many folks dazed and confused, unequipped to feel empathy or process incontrovertible evidence contrary to their beliefs.

Worshipping this false narrative stunts our progress. How do we break this cycle and move toward an honest assessment of our history?

“Just keep at it, keep repeating, keep repeating, keep challenging,” Coleman said. “After a while, it becomes irrefutable.”

Coleman is admittedly optimistic. From my vantage point, getting there from here requires more intentionality than we appear capable of. I look around and I see that Massive Resistance never truly left, but merely took on a new form of denial. The differences between our history and reality are irreconcilable.

The Lost Cause, for too long, has masqueraded as truth. If we don’t reject the lie, the truth will be a lost cause.

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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