The Complicity of Textbooks in America's RacismHistorians in the News
tags: racism, textbooks, teaching history
Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia. His books include The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History, and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. (September 2022)
by Donald Yacovone
Pantheon, 431 pp., $32.50
Like most works of history, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America concludes with a bibliography listing primary and other sources consulted by the author. Most of the groupings are unexceptional—for example, monographs, government reports, and biographies. But Du Bois’s first and largest category comes as a shock to the modern reader: it consists of books by historians who believe African Americans to be “sub-human and congenitally unfitted for citizenship and the suffrage.” Just before the bibliography, Du Bois includes a chapter, “The Propaganda of History,” that indicts the profession for abandoning scholarly objectivity in the service of “that bizarre doctrine of race that makes most men inferior to the few.” This was the state of historical scholarship in the United States when Black Reconstruction was published, in 1935.
As part of his research, Du Bois scoured history textbooks to see what was being taught in American classrooms about Reconstruction, the era after the Civil War, when laws and the Constitution were rewritten in an attempt to make the US, for the first time, an interracial democracy. Students learned that Reconstruction was the lowest point in the American saga, a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting the right to vote to Black men. The violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, the books related, was an understandable response by white southerners to the horrors of “Negro rule.” The heroes of this narrative were the self-styled white Redeemers who restored what they called “home rule” to the South, the villains northern abolitionists who irresponsibly set North against South, bringing on a needless civil war. Du Bois was well aware that what is said in history classrooms has an impact beyond the schoolhouse. The history of Reconstruction taught throughout the country “proved” that nonwhite peoples are congenitally incapable of intelligent self-government.
Now, nearly a century later, Donald Yacovone, an associate at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and a prolific writer on African American history, has published Teaching White Supremacy, which follows in Du Bois’s footsteps by tracing what textbooks, over the course of our history, have said about slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and race relations more generally. Yacovone examined hundreds of texts held in the library of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, published from the early nineteenth century to the 1980s—a heroic effort that few historians are likely to wish to emulate. Some of the authors were well-known scholars. Most will be unfamiliar even to specialists in the history of education—writers such as John Bonner, Marcius Willson, and Egbert Guernsey.
From the beginning, Yacovone concludes, American education has served “the needs of white supremacy.” Well into the twentieth century, he finds, most textbooks said little about slavery or portrayed it as a mild institution that helped lift “savage” Blacks into the realm of civilization. From generation to generation the books made no mention of Blacks’ role in helping to shape the nation’s development. They ignored Black participation in the crusade against slavery and the Civil War and portrayed Reconstruction as a disaster caused primarily by Black incapacity. Many of these textbooks were produced by the nation’s leading publishing houses—Little, Brown; Scribner’s; Harper and Brothers; Macmillan; and Yale and Oxford University Presses, to name just a few.
For those who have studied the evolution of American historical writing, Yacovone’s account will not be unfamiliar. It is well known that in the nineteenth century the concept of race, closely linked to pseudoscientific ideas about racial superiority and inferiority, was deeply embedded in American culture, including accounts of the nation’s past, and that for much of the twentieth, white southerners, through the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other organizations, successfully pressured publishers to produce textbooks that glorified the Lost Cause and condoned the nullification of the constitutional rights of Black citizens. But there are surprises as well. Beginning in Reconstruction and stretching into the early twentieth century, a number of textbooks adopted an “emancipationist” interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath—a term Yacovone borrows from David Blight’s classic work Race and Reunion (2001)—and pushed back strongly against racism.
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