Memory  /  First Person

The Lies Our Textbooks Told My Generation of Virginians About Slavery

State leaders went to great lengths to instill their gauzy version of the Lost Cause in young minds.

A series of textbooks written for the fourth, seventh and 11th grades taught a generation of Virginians our state’s history. Chapter 29 of the seventh-grade edition, titled “How the Negroes Lived Under Slavery,” included these sentences: “A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes.” The masters “knew the best way to control their slaves was to win their confidence and affection.” Enslaved people “went visiting at night and sometimes owned guns and other weapons.” “It cannot be denied that some slaves were treated badly, but most were treated with kindness.” Color illustrations featured masters and slaves all dressed smartly, shaking hands amiably.

This was the education diet that Virginia’s leaders fed me in 1967, when my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stall, issued me the first book in the series deep into the second decade of the civil rights movement. Today, Virginia’s symbols of the Lost Cause are falling. But banishing icons is the easy part. Statues aren’t history; they’re symbols. Removing a symbol requires only a shift in political power. A belief ingrained as “history” is harder to dislodge.

How hard becomes clearer when you understand the lengths to which Virginia’s White majority culture went to teach young pupils that enslaved people were contented servants of honorable planters — and why for all of my six decades we have been intermittently dismantling the myth that the Confederacy represented anything noble. That dismantling began with Reconstruction 155 years ago and still isn’t finished.

Historian Adam Wesley Dean explored the origin of my textbook in his 2009 article “ ‘Who Controls the Past Controls the Future’: The Virginia History Textbook Controversy.” It was President Harry Truman’s 1948 integration of the armed forces that spurred Virginia’s leaders to create it. A state commission took control of the history curriculum from local school boards, choosing the writers and supervising the text. The publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, sold the books to every public school for the three grades. All students were taught the same narrative. My fourth-grade edition included this: “Some of the Negro servants left the plantations because they heard President Lincoln was going to set them free. But most of the Negroes stayed on the plantations and went on with their work. Some of them risked their lives to protect the white people they loved.” And “General Lee was a handsome man with a kind, strong face. He sat straight and firm in his saddle. Traveller stepped proudly as if he knew that he carried a great general.”