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Lies My Alabama History Book Told Me: Part 2 - Why Slavery Wasn't So Bad

by: countrycat

Wed Feb 02, 2011 at 19:04:00 PM CST

The saga continues as we work our way through decades-old Alabama history books.  It's an illuminating journey that explains some of the deep-seated attitudes among many people in Alabama.  The idea that "slavery was an early form of Social Security," and that slavery was not a main cause of the Civil War seems, well, odd today.  Alabama History for Schools

Yet many, many people were learning this in Alabama public schools as recently as the early 1970's.

The 1961 textbook, Alabama History for Schools depicts slavery in Alabama as a system that really wasn't so bad - at least for the most part because cruel laws regarding education, property ownership, etc. were on the books, but not always enforced.

For instance, we learn on page 233 (PDF copy here) that "one of the least favorable sides of slavery is seen when we study the formal education of the Negro.  It was against the law in slavery time to teach slaves to read and write." But then, we find out that many slaves received an education from their white playmates, religious training, or through the generosity of their masters:

Certain masters helped their slaves in other ways to receive schooling.  Samuel Townsend of Huntsville emancipated a number of Negro slave children in his will and left an estate to provide for the education.  Townsend knew that they could not enter any schools in Alabama, so he provided that they be sent to school in the North.

And how bad - really - could slavery have been if free Negroes themselves owned slaves? 

Note: Read all the articles in this series here.

countrycat :: Lies My Alabama History Book Told Me: Part 2 - Why Slavery Wasn't So Bad

From page 235 (see PDF):

In Mobile and other Alabama towns, free Negroes found work as carpenters, bricklayers, painters, [...]  Barbering was one of the most highly regarded of the occupations of free Negroes.  Free Negroes had a society of their own hand had a good time in each others' company.  Did you know that some free Negroes themselves owned slaves?

Alabama Past and FutureNow, I also have a book titled Alabama Past and Future, published in 1941 and written by Howard Odum, Gladstone Yeuell, and Charles Summersell (who also wrote Alabama History for Schools).  Reading the two books, I noticed that the content of many sections of 1961's Alabama History for Schools were very similar to the 1941 history book.  In some cases, whole paragraphs are repeated verbatim.

Curious, I checked to see what the 1941 edition had to say about free Negroes - and found nothing.  That was an addition to the 1961 edition.  The 1941 book also mentions state's rights just once in passing and in conjunction with Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.  In contrast, the 1961 edition features the phrase prominently (and capitalizes it in the text!) and discusses the concept at length during the "Causes of the Civil War" section.

The difference between the two texts is startling in other ways too.  The 1941 text is relatively forward-looking and talks a lot about the great future the state has before it.  But by 1961, it seems like the citizenry was digging in to defend the past and hang on to it as long as possible.

In Part 3, we'll look at the causes of the Civil War and how the rationale changed in these two Alabama history textbooks in the brief 20-year span between 1941 and 1961.

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This is important stuff (4.00 / 3)

And thank you for revealing this.

My education was in the Nawth, but I never saw a Black teacher or professor until I was in graduate school in NYC in the late 60s.  (Probably 1967.  And he was a visiting professor--the great Eric C. Lincoln.

The dominant attitudes of the times really are "preserved in amber" in these old textbooks (4.00 / 3)

Because history and civics school books are all about indoctrinating kids that the world the way it is is just, righteous, and the good guys always win. 

So the emphasis in the books is a strong clue about what publishers, state school boards, and the elites they served were most worried about.

My guess is that in 1941, Brown vs. Board of Education and an integrated military was undreamed of.  But in 1961, both of these events had happened, and white supremacy was fighting back. 

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
- John Adams

that's my thought as well (4.00 / 2)

I was really surprised at how "moderate" the 1941 book seemed compared to the 1961 version.  Of course, the 1941 book does have quite a laudatory section on the KKK and how they took care of "troublemakers."

Reading them, I can't help but wonder what people will think of our history and civics books in 60 years!

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  - John Kenneth Galbraith

[ Parent ]
Here's the thing with history/civics books (4.00 / 3)

Most adults have no idea what's in them.  So a small group of folks with a well organized agenda can put all kinds of BS into textbooks with very few repercussions.  Look what the Texas Board of Education has done -- to the whole country.  And when it comes to state history books, every state holds sovereign sway over what gets into them.

What happened in Alabama between 1941 and 1961?  Let's use George Wallace as an example.

... in May 1946, he won his first election as a member to the Alabama House of Representatives. At the time, he was considered a moderate on racial issues. As a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he did not join the Dixiecrat walkout at the convention, despite his opposition to President Harry S. Truman's proposed civil rights program ...  In 1953, he was elected Circuit Judge in the Third Judicial Circuit of Alabama. ... He gained a reputation for fairness regardless of the race of the plaintiff...


He was defeated by John Patterson in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary election in 1958 ... Patterson ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against, while Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, "Seymore, you know why I lost that governor's race?... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

It's clear that attitude toward race became a major political discriminator in the period between your two different history books.  My own theory is that it just wasn't a big discriminator in political elections as long as everything was going along smoothly, the way it always had ... folks with liberal attitudes toward others were tolerated because they weren't making a lot of waves.  But once desegregation efforts took off, the intolerant people got mad, much like the Tea Party today.  They used all tools at their disposal to squash those liberal attitudes ... and one of the most natural was propaganda in textbooks.  I wonder if there was a lot of similar propaganda in newspapers and periodicals as well, or if those were tougher nuts to crack?


Work harder and work smarter!

[ Parent ]
Just goes to show (4.00 / 3)

literate white folk may have been more dangerous than the ignant ones.

I dont feel safe in the United States of America, never have.  The discussion of the indoctrination done through school books, and still going on, made this country unsafe for the other.

What are the text books like now? 


Qui bibit, dormit; qui dormit, non peccat; qui non peccat, sanctus est; ergo qui bibit sanctus est.

Today's textbooks (0.00 / 0)

That's a great question and one I'm hoping to check out.  We homeschooled for a while, so the young cone didn't get Alabama history.  I'm thinking though that it's possible to call the school or administrative office and ask to look at the textbooks.

I will say that the 11th grade AP American History book is great.  It's written in a narrative style that's actually fun to read and challenges students to question issues and do research on their own.  A far cry from the dry as dust stuff I remember.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  - John Kenneth Galbraith

[ Parent ]
Of course (0.00 / 0)

It explains why so many of the Babyboomer generation does exactly like the O'Jays song "Smiling Faces" towards blacks.  

All I'm going to say is being black in this nation is a liability, but being black in the South is just a burden. 

"Hypocrites are those whom pick and choose prejudices while giving accolades for their own..."

"It is what it is."  




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