Tellings of Slavery in American History Textbooks: An Analysis of Damaging Misinformation and Erasure of Black History
Danielle DeAngelis, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Abstract: With the rise of “The 1619 Project” and the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, contemporary American history textbooks and classrooms are moving towards a more inclusive speech when regarding slavery in the United States. However, the majority of Americans have learned from biased, intentionally indeterminate texts while enrolled in the American school system. This paper will examine the importance and influence of history textbooks, inspect an evolution of Howard Baker Wilder’s This is America’s Story textbook and how the perspective of slavery changed overtime in separate editions of the single work, and present the impact that illustration has in texts, especially when considering sensitive topics such as slavery. Most importantly, deception and censorship of truthful Black history and the honest experiences of enslaved Africans in our nation’s historical works will be proven, and the importance and effect that textbooks have to stimulate “cultural osmosis” will be confirmed.
In the August 14, 2019 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ long-form journalism collection titled “The 1619 Project” was first published. The project’s intention was to acknowledge the 400th anniversary of the first group of enslaved Africans arriving in the continental United States on the coast of colonial Virginia in 1619. When the full project was published it was 100 pages long, which included essays, photos, and a collection of poems and fiction, proving the importance of different mediums in the telling of American history. Since its publication, many have raised questions as to why the contents of the project are not commonly taught in the average American history school curriculum. This is a point that Hannah-Jones brings up in her Pulitzer Prize winning introductory essay when she says “I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been” (Hannah-Jones). The misinformation and erasure of Black history in her school’s teachings made her, a Black woman, dissociate from being a part of her own nation’s history.
While contemporary American history textbooks are moving towards a more inclusive speech when regarding slavery in the United States, the majority of Americans have learned from biased, intentionally indeterminate texts while enrolled in the American school system. This paper will examine the importance of history textbooks, inspect an evolution of Howard Baker Wilder’s This is America’s Story and how the perspective of slavery changed overtime in separate editions of this solo textbook, and present the influence that illustration has in texts, especially when considering the pre-Civil War era and slavery in general. Most importantly, deception and censorship of truthful Black history and the honest experiences of enslaved Africans in our nation’s historical works will be proven, and the importance and effect that textbooks have to stimulate “cultural osmosis” will be confirmed.
History Textbooks: An Overview
While there are earlier United States history textbooks published, American lexicographer Noah Webster is often mistakenly credited for writing the first American history textbook due to his 1841 work Early American History being one of the first standard texts specifically for schools. There were not many texts recounting the history of the United States as many schools in the North focused on teaching the Bible. The increase in history textbooks came after the Reconstruction era, when the public school system was introduced to the South.[BA1] By the late nineteenth century, textbooks were heavily relied upon by students and teachers when studying American history (Lindley).
The 1911 publication An American History by David Muzzey was a widely-used textbook in history classes throughout the country, according to Robin Lindley in his article “Textbooks and History Standards: An Historical Overview.” This text remained popular until the 1960s with the rise of the civil rights movement. It was only then that Muzzey’s work was recognized as focusing on white males with racist undertones towards minorities, including the discussion of slavery. One of the more infamous quotes publicized from his text comes from the sixth section, “The Crisis of Disunion.” Muzzey wrote the hypothetical question, “Why did the Republican Congress of 1867 put upon the unbearable burden of negro rule supported by the bayonet?” (488). Other textbooks during this era dispensed similar views, where negativity towards Black people shined in their writing. In William Mace’s A Beginner’s History (1901), he sometimes called enslaved people “laborers” instead, which completely undermines their abusive experiences. In Oscar Henry Cooper’s A History of Our Country: A Text-book for Schools (1903), he wrote, in a small section on slavery, “At first the slaves were employed chiefly as house-servants; but it was soon found that they were best adapted to farm labor and a warm climate” (Cooper 125). The language here dehumanizes these people and nearly suggests that they were a type of cattle that “adapt to farm labor.”
While we now recognize the agenda presented in texts like these, decades worth of students -- many of whom are still alive and holding positions of authority -- have been influenced by this writing, which emphasizes the importance of highlighting the prejudice inscribed in older text during modern times. Christopher Edwards explains in his article “The How of History: Using Old and New Textbooks in the Classroom to Develop Disciplinary Knowledge” that we can now benefit from learning with these older texts as we can understand the mindset of historians during these troubling eras. Edwards also says that “Textbook writers before the Second World War typically employed a single narrative structure to construct their accounts. Adopting a mono-cultural perspective, their favored theme was nation and empire building and this was largely understood in terms of the lives of a small group of individuals” (Edwards 40). By “small group of individuals,” Edwards is alluding to the focus of white male accomplishments in historical works. Historians wanted to have readers feel a sense of American pride when reading about their country, but this meant that many aspects of history were misshapen or removed as they would have painted the United States in a negative light. This is especially true in sections noting slavery, if those sections are included at all.
In response to the predisposed tellings of Black history, African American history textbooks became a developed genre by the end of the nineteenth century. One of the earliest African American focused texts was published 1891: Edward Johnson’s A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890. This was the first textbook by a Black author to be approved by the North Carolina State Board of Education to be used in public school curriculums. In the preface of this work, Johnson wrote on his experiences as a teacher and how the plain racial bias in the standard American history books can be damaging to those that read. Johnson said that “The general tone of most of the histories taught in our schools has been that of the inferiority of the Negro, whether, actually said in so many words, or left to be implied from the highest laudation of the deeds of one race to the complete exclusion of those of the other” (Johnson iii). Here, Johnson implies not only the misinterpretation of Black people when written by white authors, but he assesses the erasure of important elements of Black history, which is what led him to write and publish this focused textbook. He writes prior, “I have often observed the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro” (Johnson iii). This is important considering the history was written so as to not tarnish the reputation of the United States and to give Americans (specifically white children) a reason to be proud of the country.
Another notable African American history textbook was written by Black public school teacher Leila Amos Pendleton. She is most known for her 1912 textbook, A Narrative of the Negro, which was written to “challenge traditional ideas of subpersonhood” (King 519). This work is one of the focal points in the article “A Narrative to the Colored Children in America” by LaGarrett J. King. King describes the Pendleton book as “under-researched” and that the reasoning for this could be because of her race and gender. However, he asserts that it could have also been because Pendleton “challenged the morality of White people” (524) in her text, and this claim can be exemplified when you first open the text. In the first chapter “A Talk with the Children” and on the very first page, Pendleton writes:
Many little colored children can draw a map of Africa, tell some of its products and describe some of its people; I wonder how many have been taught to think of Africa with interest and affection, because our great, great grandparents came from that continent? (Pendleton 9).
Here, Pendleton is indirectly comparing Black children’s education system and how their cultural roots are presented to how white children learn about their heritage. Pendleton “challenging morality” of white Americans can also be seen through her telling of America’s role in slavery. In the nineteenth century, many textbook writers blamed slavery on Black people, mostly stating that it was a needed system to “civilize African immigrants.” Pendleton used her text to attest against these claims, noting how powerful people enslaved those in minority groups in government systems throughout global history. King continues, “Pendleton intimated that slavery was an oppressive and immoral system serving only the interest of European powers and had nothing to do with the moral responsibility of Whites” (524). Pendleton’s boldness in her writing, according to King, must be the prime reasoning for the limited research on A Narrative of the Negro, because instead of omitting the topic like many white historians did in their earlier published works, she accurately described the brutality enslaved Black people faced through the abuse of their white “owners.”
Wilder’s Textbook, Compared and Contrasted
Pendleton’s publication was before the time that American historians started to write about the racist foundation that America was built upon, but when they did write about the racist foundation in the early to mid-twentieth century, it was still commonly biased and misinformed. Howard Baker Wilder, a Massachusetts high school teacher who had written and helped produce a few American history textbooks throughout this era, published the first edition of his most popular textbook, This is America’s Story, in 1948. From there, Wilder went on to publish multiple editions of the textbook in three languages up until 1986. This next section will demonstrate the significant changes made in three editions of the text, specifically focusing on the section noting slavery before the era of Reconstruction. These three editions were chosen for being published throughout a consequential time period in Black American history. The earliest book examined will be the 1954 edition, the year of the civil rights movement’s start. The second chosen edition for analysis will be the 1966 publication, which was published towards the end of the civil rights era as well as two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1978 version of this text, published years after the major actions of the civil rights movement, will also be compared. The eras that each version of this same text holds significance, as it gives a reasoning for a pattern of changes seen when comparing the section titled “How Did the Slaves Live?”
When describing the work enslaved Africans were involved in on a plantation, the 1954 edition simply puts “The great majority of the Negro men, women, and children, however, were field hands” (Wilder 287). While the 1966 edition uses this line, more is added to emphasize that the work they were assigned was not voluntary: “The slaves naturally were not willing workers, and they showed this in various ways. Most slaves simply did not work any harder than they had to. Many slaves tried to escape. Occasionally slaves would rise in rebellion and use violence against their masters” (296). Even more changes were made in the 1978 edition, even to the initial line shared in the preceding editions. Most significantly, the term “negro” is cut from this edition, so the line was fittingly changed to “The great majority, however, were field hands” (296). The additional lines from the 1966 edition were also included in this one. However, they were used at the start of an added subsection instead, which was named “Many Slaves Rebel.” Significant rewording of these lines also note the desperation that those forced into slavery faced: “Sometimes the burdens of slave life became too great to bear. Many slaves who reached the point of despair tried to run away. And other times desperate slaves would rise in rebellion and use violence against their masters” (297).
Elements of enslaved African culture were then featured in this same section. The 1954 edition erroneously professed that enslaved Black people presenting their culture was a sign of happiness and consent from them on the plantation. Wilder writes:
Slaves were owned by their master, of course, and were absolutely subject to his will. Yet life in the slave quarters on many a plantation was not too unhappy. During the day the small children played merrily, often with the younger white children from the “great house.” In the twilight young and old gathered to sing and dance. The Negroes have given us some of our most beautiful folk songs and spirituals, such as Deep River; Roll, Jordan, Roll; and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. On special occasions the slaves were allowed to attend picnics or to hunt ‘coon and ‘possum. (Wilder 287).
Surprisingly, only the lines regarding music and singing were removed from the 1966 version, and enslaved people being “not too unhappy” was changed to “not always unhappy.” It was the 1978 edition that added some clarifying sentences. The start of this portion in this edition of the text was changed to “The slaves lived a harsh and cheerless life. They were owned by their master and completely under his control,” and the last line included “and on special occasions, like Christmas, the slaves might be allowed a little extra food” (297). Nevertheless, “life in the slave quarters was not always unhappy” was still incorporated into this portion, even though this does not necessarily align with the changes made.
This short section on slavery ends with observing the suffering and abuse that enslaved people faced. The language used in the 1954 text can be considered defensive towards the intentions of slave owners. “Of course there were some harsh masters that treated their slaves cruelly. In general, however, slaves were too valuable to be mistreated. The greatest fear of the slave was that he and his family would be sold. When this happened, families often became separated, and great suffering resulted” (287). The 1966 version includes this sentence as a sort of disclaimer as well, but it adds examples of the cruelty they experienced, stating that harsh masters would result in “whipping them if they misbehaved or ran away” (297). The later edition did not fully remove any points from this portion of the section. Instead, the beginning line was reworded and repositioned: “Yet, despite instances of individual kindness on the part of some masters, life in bondage was very difficult” (297). Following this, though, was the standard line we saw in the two prior texts: “In general, however, slaves were too valuable to be seriously mistreated” (297). The only notable alteration of the line is the insertion of the word “seriously.”
These three examples of text alterations verify how slavery’s interpretation had been significantly modified in just the span of two decades. The 1954 edition of This is America’s Story, while published at the start of the civil rights movement, contains a lot of misconceptions and damaging language that intentionally attempts to minimize the harsh brutalities that Black people confronted on a daily basis in American society. The 1966 edition alters some of the prejudiced language and adds more sensitive material, but the main focus of the text is not changed.
Howard Baker Wilder’s 1966 edition of This is America’s Story was also questioned during its time. “The Negro in Modern American History Textbooks,” a study conducted by social studies teacher Irving Sloan and the American Federation of Teachers, was published in September 1966 and dedicated a section to featuring the 1966 edition of Wilder’s textbook. Sloan argues that while this edition should be “commended” for recognizing the vicious, involuntary system that slavery was, it would benefit from including a more thorough examination on the Black experience during the era of the Old South. Sloan writes that “A fairly well-balanced discussion of the life of slaves follows…. but one would like to see more details and examples of these points. It is important for students not to get the notion that the Negroes were docile and willingly accepted their loss” (Sloan 29). He explains later that an example that should have been highlighted in the textbook were the resilient efforts of enslaved people such as the Underground Railroad. Sloan concluded that the 1966 edition of This is America’s Story was “average” and had both “positives and negatives” when regarding Black history, but the negatives outweigh the positives. He said that “...the weaknesses are critical enough to warrant saying that this is far from the kind of textbook this writer would want to use to teach about the Negro in American history” (Sloan 31). Here, Sloan emphasized that history should be written to not only negate important historical events, but it should be inclusive and representative of the history lived by the ancestors of all Americans.
More significant changes were made to Wilder's book in the 1978 edition, but even still, some biased language remained untouched. However, it is evident that the civil rights movement had a large impact on historians’ evaluations of crucial eras in African American history because of the incredible shift in language displayed in this particular textbook. While the content of the text itself changed for the positive as it became more focused on the struggles that enslaved African Americans faced, it is just as important to consider the illustrations in this text which, overtime, were negatively changed and entirely deleted.
Importance of Illustrations
Illustrations are celebrated by many historians to be used in textbooks as aids and references to American history, and photographs and illustrations are the most personal way to connect historical moments to our own lives, as they are a means for students to engage with the past. Louis P. Masur’s article “‘Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity’: The Use of Images in American History Textbooks” proves the importance of imagery and art and how they should be presented and explained in textbooks and history classrooms. While artwork and photographs are heavily used throughout textbooks in the modern day, Masur is unimpressed considering the minimal amount of research that is done when providing these images. “In most textbooks, the authors do not even select the images, letting the job fall to some assistant development editor” (Masur 1410). He brings up an ironic point that while pictures are a forgotten primary source, they are what made America desirable to settlers in the Old World. Maps and drawings of America attracted Europeans, so the fact that historians usually disregard images when researching the nation’s history is puzzling. Many history classes are accidentally teaching misinformation due to the lack of research done for images in textbooks. Masur brings up an important point that images, such as Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere’s created wood engravings, were important for illiterate people as visuals are a way for them to understand (Masur 1412). Masur also argued that texts should be using historical artwork as a part of the history instead of as a way to depict it. The art they use should be researched and explained. Masur wants art history to become a vital part of the teaching of American history, stating that “Our students are ready for us to challenge them even further. We can encourage them to think about how painting, more than any other art form, is treated as the premier visual expression of our culture” (Masur 1415). Paintings and wood engravings gave history a visual representation during a time where modern technology seemed impossible. Context of an image helps maintain its importance in history, so providing this context in textbooks should be deemed essential.
Wilder’s three editions of This is America’s Story are standard textbooks, but they all use images in different ways. While there was a simple comparison of language in the text, the illustrations chosen for each edition of the text are vastly different. Figure 1 depicts the section on slavery and how it appears in the 1954 edition of the text:
In the top left corner on page 286, a reproduction of a drawing titled “Picking Cotton” can be seen, and the name of this artwork presents the subject in focus. Five enslaved people are seen picking cotton on a plantation field with two homes and trees in the background. On the bottom of the same page, a similar style piece named “Slave Dwellings” is placed. This shows four plantation homes with a few people working just outside of them. One works by the well of water while others carry and build items for the plantation owners. These two images are meant to depict the scenery of the enslaved people’s environment and the looks of a southern plantation. This helps the reader visualize certain aspects of slavery because there is a perceptible component that they can connect with. However, the scale of these images are small to the point where it seems intentional. By making these visuals so small, the book editor is intending to continue the idea of dehumanization towards the enslaved Black people depicted. The photo placements are also to be questioned. On page 287, an illustration of a white man in a shirt, jacket, pants, boots, a hat and holding a long gun can be seen with the title “Mountain Man” underneath his feet. This is a visual for the new section that starts on the bottom of this page, the “mountain man” is positioned to oversee all that is depicted on the previous page. This attests to a negative connotation as his gun points at the words in front of him, aiming down at the slave dwellings imagery on the opposite page.
Figure 2 presents the parallel section and how it is presented in the 1966 edition:
Concentrating on the images seen on page 296, there have been some direct changes made. First, the illustration from the 1954 edition titled “Picking Cotton” has been replaced with a graph in the top left corner. The graph, labeled as “The American Cotton Boom,” is meant to underline the rise of demand for cotton. From 1800 to 1860, the millions of bales grown a decade went from less than a quarter of a million to nearly four million in the span of sixty years. A positive change is seeing the removal of “Mountain Man” as it had been replaced with a sketch of a ship from the past and a photo of a ship from the publication’s modern day. This does not directly address slavery, but it does act as a metaphor for how much America has changed since slavery was first introduced in the states. “Slave Dwellings” at the bottom of the page remains where it was, but the image’s white spaces are now highlighted in blue, which matches the graph’s chosen colorway. The color does help the page standout and catches the attention of a reader, but the addition of color takes an edge off of what is depicted, and for an image showcasing a time of harsh reality in American history, this seems to go against the more critical language in the text. Replacing a scenic, informative image with a graph was an intentional choice to deflect from depicting an underrepresented section of American history. Slavery is a sensitive subject that many Americans are unable to fathom, so by removing a visual aid, this will only cause the learning experience on the lesson to be inadequate.
While the 1966 replaces graphics, the 1978 edition completely erases the key imagery, and this spread can be seen in Figure 3 below:
To remove all visuals depicting slavery in this section of the text desensitizes the topic in a negative way. It can be argued that by removing the images of people and keeping the graph of the exponential growth of cotton bales, this is enforcing the ideas of the South during this time period which is that slavery is a profitable organization that directly benefits the economy. In other sections of this text, more photos and illustrations were added to enhance the segments on white America, whereas sections noting Black history suffered. While the 1978 text was more sensitive and honest in its telling of slavery, there was no real pictures to support the existence of the gruesome establishment.
One could argue that the lack of physical photographs during this era of American history is the reason why these sections do not contain visual components. However, there are African American history textbooks that are dedicated to proving this to be false. A Pictorial History of the Negro in America by Langston Hughes from 1968 is an example of a textbook that fully uses pictures and illustrations throughout the entire book to tell the history of African Americans from the start. The page spread for the section entitled “Slaves in the New World” in Hughes’ textbook seen in Figure 4 is significantly different when compared to the pages of Wilder’s textbooks:
The top left illustration is described at the beginning of the body text as “a slave ship sailed into a colonial port on the American mainland.” The visual shows “professional slave dealers” talking to each other while enslaved Africans work on the ship. The three illustrations on the right page are captioned, making their depictions more clear for the reader. The top photo in the left column is a portrayal of enslaved people extracting and boiling sugar cane juice. The art underneath it is another visual of enslaved Africans working, but in this representation, they are being watched as they test tobacco. The vertical image in the right column, like the previous art, is set in Virginia, but this reimagined rendered artwork shows enslaved individuals housing, airing and vending tobacco. This spread of images is undoubtedly more educational than the minimal pictures shown in the Wilder texts, as these characterizations present the industries, settings, conditions, and forced immigration process that enslaved African people had to face from the introduction of slavery in America up until the adoption of the 13th Amendment.
Textbooks continue to make this time period seem better than it was, even though written descriptions become more detailed, because they still try to omit portions of history so as to not tarnish America’s reputation and pride. The editions of This is America’s Story declined over time with the use of imagery in the section addressing slavery, but contemporary works have improved on including pictures in this essential section. David Kennedy’s 2011 textbook The American Pageant: A History of the Republic is a very popular choice for secondary school districts across the country, especially for Advanced Placement United States History courses. In Figure 5, a family that escaped slavery is shown in a photograph that was presented in a chapter titled “The Great West and the Agricultural Revolution, 1865-1896:”
The picture shows a Black family of three men, two women, a baby and a dog. The caption on the photo reads, “These two brothers and their families had escaped to Canada from the slave South during the Civil War. Returning to the United States in the 1880s, they took advantage of the Homestead Act to stake out farms in Custer County, Nebraska” (Kennedy 611). Not only did this text provide a real photograph of the formerly enslaved family, but it also gave background information on this particular family and how they were a part of this era in history. This is exactly the type of visual representation and analysis that Masur pleaded for in his article. This should be exemplified in all general American history textbooks, but the extended information and visuals are also implemented in “The 1619 Project” curriculum, which has been recently introduced to hundreds of school districts. The project includes a photo essay, and this element will help students understand the impact that slavery has had on current generations to a greater extent. The project will also be a great tool to compare and contrast the content available in the regular classroom textbook, a practice that has been epitomized throughout this paper.
The vague or wrong telling of slavery in American history has impacted the views of every American that relied on their textbooks to be truthful. Hannah-Jones from “The 1619 Project” marks that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” so if this is the case, then those who have written about our country’s history over the past few centuries would be bound to showcase a clear bias and reproduce it to place an impression on younger generations.
With “The 1619 Project” being added to curriculums as well as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, young people are taking an interest in learning the truth about our nation. “The 1619 Project Curriculum” includes reading guides, activities and other resources as a way for the collection to be smoothly implemented into history classes. Since it was published, hundreds of thousands of copies of The New York Times Magazine issue that included “The 1619 Project” have been dispensed to schools, museums and libraries across the United States, which is a step in the right direction for the sake of future generations and those interested in relearning American history from a candid perspective. The history of a country with foundations of racism and violence towards Black people should be bound to correctly demonstrate their historical roots in America through appropriate text and illustrations. Only then will our nation’s legacy shift to growth from the near propaganda that has been taught in schools for centuries.
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