POLITICS
02/13/2019 14:58 EST | Updated 02/13/2019 15:01 EST

What Our Textbooks Get Wrong About Slavery

A 2011 Pew research poll found that nearly 48 percent of Americans still believe the Civil War was a fight over “states rights.”

The white people of the Confederacy didn’t mince words. They were fighting for the right to enslave African-Americans. 

When South Carolina voted 169-0 to become the first state to secede from the union, the articles of secession bemoaned the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.”

Later, on the eve of the Civil War, when Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens delivered a speech outlining his vision for the new nation, he declared the Confederacy would be founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and that “the natural and normal condition” of African-Americans was slavery.

Yet despite the Confederacy’s own candor, a 2011 Pew research poll found that nearly 48 percent of Americans still believe the Civil War was a fight over “states rights.” Meanwhile, a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that only 8 percent of surveyed high school seniors identified slavery as the driving cause of the Civil War. Why 150 years after the Civil War’s end are so many so Americans still confused about its beginning? 

The decades following the Civil War saw the rise of organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that made it their mission to promote an alternate history of the Confederacy’s role in the war. They memorialized Confederate soldiers, erected statues of Confederate generals, and perhaps most troublingly, they established commissions dedicated to overseeing and recommending textbooks for children. 

These commissions proved remarkably effective in regulating what was printed into textbooks. In the ensuing decades, many children’s history textbooks characterized the Civil War as a fight between independent-minded Southern states and an overbearing federal government, or as the textbooks call it “states rights.” 

Relying on primary sources are an excellent substitute because you point to the words of the people themselves. They are clear that slavery is the central cause of the secession and the glue that is binding the states of the Confederacy.Hasan Kwame Jefferies, an associate professor of African American Studies at OSU

Which is why at Wakefield High school in Arlington, Virginia, history teacher Antoinette Waters has more or less stopped using textbooks altogether. Instead, Waters teaches her students using primary source documents from the Civil War era.

“The primary source documents seem to say clearly that the south was fighting for slavery,” says Waters.

Hasan Kwame Jefferies, an associate professor of African American Studies at Ohio State University who contributed to the Southern Poverty Law Center report on textbooks agrees with Waters’ approach.

“Relying on primary sources are an excellent substitute because you point to the words of the people themselves,” says Jefferies. “They are clear that slavery is the central cause of the secession and the glue that is binding the states of the Confederacy.”

For Waters, using primary source documents in her classroom is as much about engaging her students’ critical thinking as it is about steering them away from false narratives around the Civil War. 

“Get Out of that textbook and go to the documents,” she tells her students. “You can look at the textbook as a guide but then start researching, go to a library, figure it out.”

But not all school districts allow for this. Even today, the problem of widespread fabrications in textbooks still exists.

In fact, 2019 is the first year that public school textbooks in Texas will be required to teach that the enslavement of African-Americans was the central cause of the Civil War.

While even in the textbooks that do pinpoint slavery as the Civil War’s cause, the institution is often discussed in purely economic terms, and without any mention of the white supremacist ideologies held by both southerners and northerners leading up to the war.

“It becomes distanced. It becomes othered,” says Jefferies. “If you can’t accurately understand the ways in which society has been built and constructed, economically, politically and socially. Then you can not make sense of the present.”