When the Textbooks Lied, Black Alabamians Turned to Each Other for HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, segregation, African American history, Alabama, textbooks, teaching history
School was the last place Tonea Stewart expected to learn about the past.
As a child in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s and 1960s, Stewart, a member of the Alabama State Board of Education, said she got “no sense of our history” from her teachers.
“The history I learned came from my family telling their stories,” she said.
Those stories could be painful. There was the one her great-grandfather, known as Papa Dallas, who was born in slavery, told her about the time he tried to learn the alphabet, a crime for an enslaved person. He was discovered by a group of white men.
“They pulled him out and beat him and told him, ‘Let this be a lesson to all you Negroes,’” Stewart said. Then the white men stuck a hot poker in his eyes, blinding him for life.
This barbaric cruelty never made it into textbooks used in Mississippi or other Southern states in the 1950s and 1960s. In their narratives, slavery was unpleasant, and sometimes unkind, but never the cruel or dehumanizing institution that the enslaved remembered. More often, it was presented as benign or even positive. An Alabama history textbook published in 1961 compared it to Social Security.
Lynching got no mention. Segregation was barely discussed. Black political leaders during Reconstruction were dismissed as dupes, or worse. And Black voices were pointedly excluded from the history.
The distorted picture emerged from deliberate propaganda from Southern heritage groups and white academics that accepted and advanced Lost Cause interpretations of slavery and segregation.
“It’s not that there were pro-Union textbooks that had to be altered for the South,” said Edward Ayers, a professor of history at the University of Richmond. “(Historian) Samuel Eliot Morrison in his textbook referred to slavery as a ‘school for savages.’”
But the distortions and the evasions did not kill the history. Black historians pushed back against white supremacist narratives. And amid a barrage of propaganda that reinforced stereotypes and defended Jim Crow laws, Black families, Black churches and Black schools kept stories of oppression, resistance and achievement alive.
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