Memory  /  Book Review

The Complicity of the Textbooks

A new book traces how the writing of American history, from Reconstruction on, has falsified and illuminated our racial past.

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.