Like most works of history, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America concludes with a bibliography listing primary and other sources consulted by the author. Most of the groupings are unexceptional—for example, monographs, government reports, and biographies. But Du Bois’s first and largest category comes as a shock to the modern reader: it consists of books by historians who believe African Americans to be “sub-human and congenitally unfitted for citizenship and the suffrage.” Just before the bibliography, Du Bois includes a chapter, “The Propaganda of History,” that indicts the profession for abandoning scholarly objectivity in the service of “that bizarre doctrine of race that makes most men inferior to the few.” This was the state of historical scholarship in the United States when Black Reconstruction was published, in 1935.
As part of his research, Du Bois scoured history textbooks to see what was being taught in American classrooms about Reconstruction, the era after the Civil War, when laws and the Constitution were rewritten in an attempt to make the US, for the first time, an interracial democracy. Students learned that Reconstruction was the lowest point in the American saga, a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting the right to vote to Black men. The violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, the books related, was an understandable response by white southerners to the horrors of “Negro rule.” The heroes of this narrative were the self-styled white Redeemers who restored what they called “home rule” to the South, the villains northern abolitionists who irresponsibly set North against South, bringing on a needless civil war. Du Bois was well aware that what is said in history classrooms has an impact beyond the schoolhouse. The history of Reconstruction taught throughout the country “proved” that nonwhite peoples are congenitally incapable of intelligent self-government.
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.
Yacovone begins his narrative before the American Revolution. Even then, the idea was widespread that North America is the natural home of people defined as “white.” No less a personage than Benjamin Franklin suggested in 1751 that since the number of “purely white People” in the world was very small, Britain’s North American colonies ought to exclude all “Blacks and Tawneys,” among whom he included the “swarthy” peoples of Europe, such as Spaniards, Italians, and, in an original touch, Swedes. This outlook was written into law in 1790 in the first Naturalization Act, which limited the right to become citizens to “white” immigrants.
History, closely tied to ideas about race, became part of the nation-building project. Nineteenth-century historians such as George Bancroft explained that the new nation’s destiny as what Jefferson called an “empire of liberty” arose from the innate characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon race, a construct whose definition depended on exclusion—of Blacks, Native Americans, and immigrants, especially Roman Catholics. History textbooks, Yacovone shows, reflected this equation of American identity with whiteness. American history was the story of British settlement and westward expansion. The indigenous population, often referred to as “savages,” was little more than an obstacle to the fulfillment of the nation’s world-historical destiny of dominating the continent. As for the Black presence, textbooks said almost nothing about it other than to suggest that the nation would be better off if, whether slave or free, Blacks were “colonized” in Africa. Since textbooks ignored slavery, pupils at midcentury must have been hard-pressed to explain contemporary events like the Missouri Controversy, the Compromise of 1850, and the rise of the Republican Party.
Only a handful of textbooks, including one by the Quaker writer Mary Bothan Howitt (published in 1860), condemned slavery or pointed out that it had existed in the North as well as the South. More typical was Emma Willard, a founder of Troy Female Seminary, in New York, who wrote several textbooks, which together sold more than one million copies. “Her popularity,” Yacovone writes, “cannot be overstated.” While she was a leader in the movement for women’s education, Willard at the same time condemned the abolitionist and women’s rights movements and considered Blacks an inferior species undeserving of “political equality.” (The seminary did not admit a Black student until 1948.) In a preview of changes to come, however, as the Civil War approached, she condemned the Atlantic slave trade and declared slavery “an evil so vast in its consequences” that its peaceful eradication was all but impossible.
Yacovone treats the reader to a litany of white supremacist quotations from prominent nineteenth-century writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry Adams—a kind of greatest (or worst) hits of American racism. But he devotes the most attention—an entire chapter—to a racist author and propagandist few scholars have ever heard of, John H. Van Evrie. A prolific writer and publisher of fevered books, pamphlets, and newspapers (one entitled the Weekly Caucasian), Van Evrie was firmly devoted to the idea that the US should be the white man’s country.
Van Evrie’s books included White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (1870; the work is still available from the Confederate Reprint Company), and he popularized the term “master race,” which originated before the Civil War in the writings of pro-slavery ideologues. Having trained as a physician, he was especially interested in publicizing the pseudoscience of race, arguing, among other things, that Blacks were a species distinct from whites. In Yacovone’s view, Van Evrie was “the father of white supremacy.” Whether he deserves this label is open to question, given how widespread in nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual life was the notion that mankind can be divided into distinct races, each with inborn capacities and characteristics, and that races exist on a hierarchy of innate ability, with whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom. In fact, Van Evrie’s version of white supremacy was somewhat eccentric. He strongly defended slavery but refused to use the word, deeming it an inaccurate description of the Black condition. He opposed the colonization movement on the grounds that the economy could not survive without Black labor, and his notion of separate Black and white creations offended believers in the literal truth of the Bible, including in the South.
The Union’s triumph in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery posed an immense challenge to traditional narratives of American history. Yacovone shows how textbook writers—some of them, like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, veterans of the abolitionist movement—embraced the Reconstruction ideal of equal citizenship regardless of race. Textbooks written in the 1870s, along with revised editions of pre-war works, now placed slavery at the center of the American story. They traced the conflict over slavery to the nation’s beginnings and depicted the emergence of militant abolitionism as a turning point. Antislavery radicals such as William Lloyd Garrison, previously ignored or seen as dangerous fanatics, were now depicted as men and women of high moral principle. These books assimilated the end of slavery into the preexisting narrative of national progress, as a step toward fulfilling the American mission of being a beacon of liberty for mankind.
The postwar decades also witnessed the first textbooks aimed at a Black readership, designed to be used in southern schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and the biracial Reconstruction governments. They emphasized Blacks’ contributions to American history, particularly their service in the wartime Union army. A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890 (1891) by Edward A. Johnson, a lawyer and teacher born a slave, devoted an entire chapter to Frederick Douglass, whom pre-war textbooks had ignored. Most remarkable, perhaps, was The Nation: The Foundations of Civil Order and Political Life in the United States, published in 1870 by Elisha Mulford, a Yale graduate who later studied in Germany. (Yacovone states that Mulford—who was born in 1833—studied with Hegel himself, although the philosopher died in 1831.) Whether because of the advent of Reconstruction or not, Mulford explicitly repudiated the identification of the US with white persons. The nation, he wrote, should rest on “the rights of man,” not the “rights of a race,” and should embrace all those who lived within its borders.
Yacovone chides previous scholars for jumping over these post–Civil War history textbooks. But, as he is well aware, a backlash eventually set in, with emancipationist works superseded by what Blight called the “reconciliationist” account of the Civil War, which minimized the horrors of slavery and celebrated the Lost Cause. A combination of developments contributed to this marked regression in classroom education—the acquisition of an overseas empire in the Spanish-American War; the consolidation, with the North’s acquiescence, of the Jim Crow system in the South; and the spread of racist ideologies including Social Darwinism and eugenics. Meanwhile, advocates of the Lost Cause pressed southern boards of education not to assign textbooks that portrayed the Old South in unflattering terms, and northern publishers revised their textbooks accordingly.
By the 1920s and for decades afterward, Yacovone writes, textbooks depicted slavery in ways “indistinguishable from the views of John C. Calhoun.” Almost universally, they portrayed it as a benign institution, an idea reinforced by pictures of happy slaves dancing to banjo music on pre-war southern plantations. (Around 1950, my mother, a high school art teacher in Long Beach, Long Island, marched into the principal’s office to complain about such an image in my third-grade textbook. The principal replied, “What difference does it make what they are taught about slavery?”) A best-selling textbook, The Growth of the American Republic (1930) by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, two of the country’s leading historians, declared that there was “much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization.” Notoriously, the book’s discussion of the overall impact of the institution on its victims began, “As for Sambo…” With slavery whitewashed, so to speak, abolitionists were portrayed as a group of mentally disturbed malcontents.
White supremacy, often assumed rather than elaborated in nineteenth-century textbooks, now became explicit. Lothrop Stoddard, a leading eugenicist best known for his 1920 book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (an early example of the “replacement theory” so avidly promoted on Fox News today), also published a history textbook, Re-Forging America (1927). In it he confidently proclaimed, “Nothing is more certain than that the Fathers of the Republic intended America to be a ‘white man’s country.’” Thomas Maitland Marshall went even further. On the first page of his 1930 textbook, American History, he defined history: “The Story of the White Man.”
The most successful textbook of the first half of the twentieth century was written by David Muzzey, a professor at Columbia University. It faithfully repeated the arguments of what came to be called the Dunning School—named for his Columbia colleague William A. Dunning—that condemned Reconstruction as a disaster brought about by granting Black men the right to vote. Muzzey’s book was widely used into the 1960s. It was the textbook in my own high school history class, its outlook faithfully echoed by our teacher, Mrs. Bertha Berryman. If memory serves, the edition of Muzzey we used did not mention a single African American by name. The Dunning School and the textbooks that replicated its portrait of Reconstruction offered white students an easy explanation for Blacks’ unequal status. They had been given a chance to progress during Reconstruction. They had abused the opportunity and could hardly complain if the more capable whites surpassed them in wealth and political power. It is not surprising, given what was being taught in American schools in the 1920s, that when Robert and Helen Lynd conducted research in Muncie, Indiana, for their book Middletown, they found that 70 percent of high school students agreed with the statement “The white race is the best race on earth.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, Columbia’s anthropology department was home to Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Franz Boas, whose writings demolished the idea that races have inborn, permanently fixed capabilities. But next door, scholars in the history and political science departments continued to disseminate white-supremacist narratives. Apart from Morison, Harvard comes out somewhat better. Unlike Dunning, Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart were willing to train Black scholars, including Du Bois himself and Carter G. Woodson, founder in 1916 of the Journal of Negro History, where Black scholars began the laborious task of challenging prevailing accounts of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Woodson’s textbook The Negro in Our History (1922) was widely used in Black colleges but ignored in mainstream institutions. Hart rejected the pro-Confederate revision of Civil War history and praised Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans. Even he, however, echoed the Dunning account when it came to Reconstruction.
Yacovone deserves thanks for undertaking the task of reading through all these textbooks. Unfortunately, he does not really subject the idea of white supremacy, so crucial to his narrative, to careful examination. He fails to make clear what exactly it means, whom it benefits, and how it may have changed over time. Despite his having demonstrated otherwise in his account of “emancipationist” post–Civil War textbooks, too often white supremacy appears as a timeless set of beliefs and practices that defines the entire society. As a result, the distinction between slavery and freedom sometimes fades into the background. They become simply different manifestations of an ideology equally dominant in the North and South. Indeed, a number of times Yacovone asserts that racism was more extreme and more deeply rooted in the pre–Civil War North than the slave South, where, he claims, without elaborating, white supremacy had a “patchwork quality” and Blacks enjoyed “more freedom” than in the “nominally” free states. Not only does this make it difficult to explain why the Civil War took place, but it ignores the fact that while Blacks in the antebellum North faced numerous forms of discrimination, unlike in the South they had white allies, whose struggles to improve their condition laid the foundation for the legislation and constitutional amendments of Reconstruction.*
After the end of slavery, Yacovone claims, nothing about “white perceptions of Black inferiority” changed. Abolition, he writes, “only increased the North’s desire to erect walls of racial segregation.” This makes it hard to understand the spate of state laws enacted in the North in the 1880s banning racial discrimination in public accommodations. As an analytical tool, moreover, the idea of a timeless white supremacy ignores differences of power within white America. I once heard the great historian C. Vann Woodward offer the following gloss on the concept: “White supremacy means that some whites are supreme over all blacks and over some other whites.”
Focusing on a few pages in sprawling books, moreover, can obscure broader questions of interpretation. Writing a textbook is an exercise in selection. One cannot cover everything. What is included depends on the book’s overall interpretive approach. Charles and Mary Beard, in a textbook written in the 1920s, pretty much ignored the abolitionist movement, reflecting not only racism, certainly present in their book, but also the “Beardian” understanding of history as a series of struggles between economic classes, with political ideologies being essentially masks for economic self-interest. In this view, the Civil War was a struggle for national power between southern planters (whose status as an agrarian class the Beards believed more important than the system of labor they utilized) and the industrial bourgeoisie of the North. Scholars of the 1950s disparaged the abolitionists not only because of racism but as part of the then dominant “consensus” interpretation of the nation’s history, which emphasized areas of broad agreement among Americans rather than moments of internal strife.
In the past two generations, historical scholarship on slavery, antislavery, and Reconstruction has undergone a profound transformation. Most historians today see slavery as fundamental to American economic and political development, the antislavery movement as an admirable part of American society, and Reconstruction as a flawed but idealistic effort to build an egalitarian society on the ashes of slavery. A host of new sources, many of them making available the perspective of African Americans, has appeared, in such venues as the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, the Black Abolitionist Papers, Freedmen’s Bureau Records, and many others. Readers of Teaching White Supremacy are likely to wonder how fully these sources and new interpretations are reflected in current textbooks, yet Yacovone says next to nothing about those published in the past thirty or forty years, including those in use today. This is a missed opportunity.
Lately, as is well known, the teaching of history has become—not for the first time—a terrain of conflict in the ongoing culture wars. Numerous states have enacted laws or regulations banning the teaching of “divisive concepts,” with the histories of slavery and racism at the top of the list. Charges—almost entirely imaginary—proliferate that teachers are seeking to make white students feel guilty for our racial past and indoctrinate the young with critical race theory, an obscure methodology mostly encountered in law schools and graduate departments. In some states teachers are breaking the law if they talk seriously about racism. It is easy to scoff at these measures, which require (in the words of a North Dakota statute) that the teaching of history be “factual and objective” while at the same time forbidding mention of the idea that racism is “systemically embedded in American society.” But they pose a serious threat to academic freedom. Nietzsche once distinguished between three kinds of history—antiquarian (works of genealogy), monumental (glorification of the nation-state), and critical (history that “judges and condemns”). There have always been those who wish to impose the monumental approach on the nation’s classrooms.
Perhaps an equally significant problem with history education today is that there is simply not enough of it. In the past two decades, state after state, spurred by the growing emphasis on STEM subjects and the No Child Left Behind policy of linking school funding to test scores in English and mathematics, has significantly reduced how much history is taught at all levels of public education.
Ideas have consequences. Neither the historical profession nor the publishing industry has fully acknowledged its decades-long complicity in disseminating the poisonous idea that Black Americans are unfit for participation in American democracy. Meanwhile, people are still teaching history, and many are teaching it well.