Exhuming history, exposing lies

As I watched Richmond city workers, surrounded by cheering protestors, remove a hundred-year-old towering bronze of Stonewall Jackson on horseback from its base on Monument Avenue, tears streamed down my face. On the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I thought of my Virginia history textbook that described slaves as contented servants.

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Virginia: History, Government, Geography (1956), Charles Scribner’s Sons, the seventh-grade text

Virginia History was disseminated in 1957, and Mrs. Stall issued it to me in fourth grade, 10 years later. I’ve been studying Virginia history ever since, fortunately in a scholarly atmosphere that developed alongside the Civil Rights movement. We have been intermittently dismantling the Lost Cause myth all my six decades; the pace is accelerating in this George Floyd moment. Some friends object to the removal of monuments, confusing them with “history.” This Fourth of July, I describe some of that history, beginning with textbooks.

In 2009 Adam Wesley Dean, then a doctoral candidate at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, and now a professor at the University of Lynchburg, published “Who Controls the Past Controls the Future: The Virginia History Textbook Controversy,” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Volume 117 No. 4). His title is borrowed from Orwell, and his essay reviews the state’s propagation of a lie.

For the middle third of the 20th century, Virginia’s leaders were of the political machine of Harry Flood Byrd Sr., governor 1926-1930 and senator 1933-1965. The Byrd machine was alarmed by President Truman’s 1948 integration of the armed forces. In 1950 the Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission took control of the curriculum from local school boards, choosing the writers and supervising the final drafts sent to publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons. In exchange, Scribner sold the books to every public school in the state for three grades: fourth, seventh and 11th. Students were taught essentially the same mythical narrative.

The commission’s lead historian for the seventh-grade edition was Francis B. Simkins, a professor at Longwood College in Farmville. In his 1947 book, The South Old and New, Simkins wrote that slavery was “an educational process which transformed the black man from a primitive to a civilized person endowed with conceits, customs, industrial skills, Christian beliefs, and ideals, of the Anglo-Saxon of North America.” During the Civil War, the slaves “remained so loyal to their masters [and] supported the war unanimously.” During Reconstruction, “blacks were aroused to political consciousness not of their own accord but by outside forces.”

Spotswood Hunnicutt, one of Simkins’s co-authors, believed that as a result of post-bellum interpretations, students were “confused” that “slavery caused a war in 1861.” The commission, she said, was “looking after the best interest of the students.” The “primary function of history,” she concluded, was “to build patriotism.”

In Adam Dean’s summary, my book (I remember its illustrations) gave this lesson on slavery and the war:

“[T]he Northern people did not need much help to work their small farms. The planters in Virginia and in the South needed many men to work them. They had slaves to do their work.” In terms of secession, Virginia’s History alleged that “the people of all the states had certain rights under the United States Constitution, but the people in the South believed that their rights were being taken away from them [and they decided] to leave the United States and start a new nation.” . . . “General Lee was a handsome man,” who “sat straight and firm in his saddle. Traveller stepped proudly as if he knew that he carried a great general.” Even though the “Confederate armies won many battles . . . they could not win the war.”

The courts intervene

As the textbook commission went about writing the Lost Cause narrative, reality was intruding on two fronts, one of them in Simkins’s and Hunnicutt’s hometown. Farmville students went on strike over unequal facilities in spring 1951 and filed a lawsuit in October. The students, led by Barbara Johns, lost in trial court, but Dorothy Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward became one of the five cases consolidated in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

After the students’ Brown victory in 1954, the Virginia governor appeared to accept the court’s unanimous decision outlawing school segregation. But Byrd decried it as unconstitutional and coined the term “Massive Resistance.” The details, if you didn’t live in Virginia in the 1950s, seem incredible: a state government enacting laws to close schools. Most of the state’s newspapers participated in an allied effort coordinated by the editor of the Richmond News-Leader, James J. Kilpatrick, later made famous by a slot on 60 Minutes opposite Shana Alexander (and even more so by Dan Aykroyd’s parody with Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live: “Jane, you ignorant slut”).

In the wake of Brown, publication of the textbooks was delayed. Adam Dean writes that Attorney General J. Lindsey Almond Jr., who described himself as “the most massive of all resisters,” was invited to edit the seventh-grade text. Voters elected Almond governor with 63 percent of the vote in 1957, the year the textbooks arrived in classrooms.

Citizen and business discontent with Massive Resistance grew from the start, but it only  collapsed in 1959, when federal and state courts ruled on the same day that closing public schools was unconstitutional. Arlington and Norfolk quickly admitted Black students, but other districts slow-walked integration long after the Supreme Court ruled against Prince Edward County again in 1964.

With enactment of the Voting Rights Act, Virginia politics began to shift. Mills Godwin won election as governor in 1965 promising more progressive policies on race. But the State Board of Education held firm, renewing the textbooks in 1966 for another six years despite growing criticism among educators and in Congress and other states. In 1968 the board – whose president Lewis F. Powell Jr. would become a Supreme Court justice three years later – proposed a unit in “citizenship education” emphasizing “the rule of law, now so gravely endangered by crime, disorders, extremism and disobedience.” The board’s proposal, according to an AP story, alleged that “there is abroad in this country an escalating unrest which has led already to unprecedented crime, discord and civil disobedience. If unchecked, this unrest will lead to revolution and the end of all freedom.”

By the time the board’s six-year renewal of the books expired in 1972, Powell’s view was in retreat. The month he was sworn in as a justice, the board voted unanimously to withdraw the books. Yet they remained: Pat Lang, a McLean mother, protested about my fourth-grade text in a letter to The Washington Post in October 1977. That damned book was in circulation for a generation of children.

The scholars begin digging

It’s not as if Virginia leaders and academics hadn’t known better from the start. Alongside the political realm arose a new scholarship, and it started at U.Va.

Months after the Supreme Court delivered Brown, C. Vann Woodward, an Arkansan educated at Emory, Columbia and the University of North Carolina, delivered a series of lectures before an integrated audience in Charlottesville. The lectures became his first book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. A decade later Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement.”

In a 2000 remembrance published in the New York Review of Books, Woodward protégé David Brion Davis, perhaps the nation’s most prominent scholar of slavery, wrote of Woodward:

He led the way in desegregating the history of his native South and in demolishing a deeply rooted mythology that dominated white Americans’ views of race relations from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the 1950s and 1960s – a mythology endorsed by many leading historians and popularized by novelists and filmmakers in, for example, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.

Negro slavery, according to this mythological tradition, had been a mild and benign means of civilizing African savages. Slavery would have evolved into a more productive and less authoritarian system of peasantry had there been no Civil War, a wholly “repressible conflict” ignited by extremists on both sides. The subsequent Reconstruction, with carpetbaggers and clownish blacks running corrupt state legislatures, had been a grotesque circus, moderately and often humorously checked by the Ku Klux Klan, until “the Redeemers” restored white supremacy and a reasonable system of “separate but equal” Jim Crow.

Woodward’s scholarship continued in Origins of the New South, the greatest influence on my view of our political history since I read it in my final term at Virginia. Within the book was his doctoral dissertation on Thomas E. Watson, an 1890s Georgia Populist who tried to unite rural Americans across race and class and advocated the franchise for Black men. Reading Watson’s turn to nativism and racism after 1900, I thought then that the South got what it deserved: decades of economic and political underdevelopment. The region could have led the way to a more perfect union: a multi-racial, multi-class movement challenging the power of the cartels that ran the economy to the detriment of working people. But as people are wont to do, they fell for racial and cultural divisions incited by demagogues.

Thirty-nine years later, on the 244th anniversary of the document articulating Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths, the monuments to a racist past are tumbling, Mississippi has retired its flag, and corporate partners have finally informed Dan Snyder that his NFL franchise’s nickname harms its economic value.

Next stop: Charlottesville, where during neo-Nazis’ defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee three summers ago, a white-supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer. The president’s defense of white supremacists three days after Heyer’s death – “very fine people on both sides” – remains the nadir of his dismal poll numbers.

For every action. . . .

Still, four months from election day, Donald Trump went to Mt. Rushmore, a site with its own complex history, and claimed in language recalling Harry Byrd and Lewis Powell:

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.

No, Mr. President. Though you may wish to confuse factions acting and reacting in the streets, your protestors are exhuming history. It doesn’t reverse the division you have promoted, but it may set a foundation for a new birth of freedom.


Stonewall Jackson base, Richmond, July 1. Photo: Brian Ross Cannon


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2 Responses to Exhuming history, exposing lies

  1. Guy Land says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this in the Post Outlook section yesterday, Bennett. Good to know what you’re up to these days.


  2. George A Barr says:

    Myopic view of history is finally focusing to 20/20.


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