The Problem in the Classroom

Any true reckoning with racism must include our schools

An integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C., photographed in 1957 by Warren K. Leffler (Library of Congress)
An integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C., photographed in 1957 by Warren K. Leffler (Library of Congress)

As I have watched our nation reassess, these past few months, which monuments are worthy of public veneration and how we contend with the legacy of the Confederate flag, I have become convinced that the more urgent problem we face is how to implement lasting structural change in a country plagued by racism and racial inequality. Having spent many years working in education, I am also convinced that one place we must focus our attention is our public schools.

The schoolhouse became a particularly contentious space after the Civil War, when the nation grappled with Reconstruction. In the South, schools were the battleground from which to propagate the mythology of the Lost Cause, the narrative that enslaved persons were treated kindly and that the Confederacy’s principal reason for war was the noble defense of states’ rights—not the preservation of slavery. It was determined throughout the South, with implicit support from across the nation, that policies behind enslavement, segregation, and institutional racism, which shaped the daily lives of Americans since the founding of the nation, would not be taught. Textbooks were carefully monitored and teachers were trained to maintain the false narrative.

Lewis Guion was one such defender of the Lost Cause. Having served as a captain for a Louisiana division of the Confederate Army, Guion had a keen interest in promoting his interpretation of the “War Between the States.” After his service to the Confederacy, Guion chaired the history committee that reviewed every textbook for the state of Louisiana, taking his new duties as seriously as his ones on the battlefield. His criticisms were exact and damning. When one textbook made a single reference to Booker T. Washington, at the time a widely respected Black educator from Alabama, Guion took great offense. “Any publisher,” Guion reported to the Louisiana Board of Education in 1909, “that has so little business sense, or is so unsupportive of the southern people, should be taught to take his educational wares elsewhere.” After reviewing a composition and rhetoric textbook that included a favorable passage on Abraham Lincoln, Guion declared: “It is very evident that a determined effort is being made to place before southern children Lincoln as a hero. If Lincoln was right and to be admired to the exclusion of Jefferson Davis, then the Confederate soldiers were all wrong and traitors. Is this Board prepared to have the children so taught?”

The school board agreed, and textbook publishers fell into line, steering clear of anything “controversial” that would turn off potential consumers in the South—a major market, since the number of public schools grew after the war. Guion and the legion of Confederate gatekeepers wielded significant influence over public schools—a system that in the South, ironically, was founded by African Americans. Whereas southern states had explicitly forbidden the education of enslaved persons as a mechanism to maintain the system of slavery, during the brief period of Reconstruction, newly elected Black representatives rightly viewed education as the pathway to liberation and freedom. Some of the first legislative acts constructed a public school system for all children, even as Confederate defenders became invested in controlling those schools to preserve their own power.

More than a century later, it is clear that Guion and those like him won the war over curriculum and pedagogy. Having taught in higher education in South Carolina for the past 10 years, I have listened to more students that I can count report not learning about slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Nearly all were shocked to see the words slaves and slavery appearing 18 times in South Carolina’s “Declaration of Causes” for seceding from the Union in 1860. Those students recalled attempts to paint a rosy picture of the slave experience, such as those propagated by local plantations boasting of antebellum planters who taught slaves to read and write—a common fable to distinguish the “good” slaveowner from the bad. On their way to class, these same students had often passed the Confederate flag, a statue of the defender of slavery John C. Calhoun towering 100 feet above the ground, or academic buildings named after segregationists, racists, or slaveowners.

Such experiences continue to resonate across southern classrooms at all levels, particularly in middle and high school, when American history is explored in greater detail. One caption of a high school world geography textbook, published by McGraw-Hill in 2015 and still popular in Texas, referred to enslaved persons as “workers” in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration.” The American Pageant, a popular textbook in high school advanced placement courses published by Cengage, similarly uses “immigrants” to characterize enslaved persons. Many of the same students also read about the failure of Reconstruction—not because this Republican experiment was brought down by political compromise and the unrelenting racism of legislators, but because civil rights were supposedly “forced” on southern states, leading to the disenfranchisement of white citizens. Such books also neglect to mention that 12 of the first 18 presidents owned slaves. In Florida, the Discovering our Past American history textbook for middle school students (also published by McGraw-Hill) provides ample biographical attention to Thomas Jefferson but does not mention that he was a slaveowner or that Monticello was a plantation. To this day, state history standards in North Carolina call upon educators to teach about the “immigration of Africans to the American South.” Just recently, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill that would deny federal funding to schools that taught The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which places slavery at the center of American history.

The central role of slavery in the early years of the republic is omitted in other ways—and not just south of the Mason-Dixon line. History textbooks in Wisconsin failed to mention the word racism in their middle-school textbooks until recently, and many still leave it out. Equally rare today is any mention of how Wisconsin’s earliest settlers owned slaves and how some residents returned those running from southern slaveowners back to the South. Students in Oregon today will more than likely not learn that exclusionary race laws shaped the state’s constitution and legal framework.

And then there are the stories of possibly well-intentioned classroom projects gone horribly wrong. One instructor in North Carolina asked students to identify “good reasons” for slavery. Another teacher in the same state led students in singing the “blues” while working in a nearby cottonfield during a field trip. In California classrooms, teachers reenacted the life of enslaved persons on plantations and slave ships. Students in Ohio advertised mock slave auctions and promoted them throughout the school. As a hands-on lesson, one teacher used the single Black student in class to play the part of a person on sale.

And what of the long shadow of slavery? To eradicate perceived liberal bias, Texas policymakers in 2010 watered down references to the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow in state history standards. Textbook companies pandered to the weakened standards in Texas—a potential market of more than 50 million textbooks—as they had after the Civil War. To this day, the billion-dollar textbook industry shies away from the hard lessons of history to avoid offending clients who prefer to teach the War Between the States. Rarely in state standards today do we find mandates to thoroughly teach about peonage, convict leasing, or the implementation of Jim Crow. By the time students are in high school, they have learned instead that enslaved people were freed—and that is all. This precludes critical thinking about pertinent issues raised by today’s protests, such as the school-to-prison pipeline or armed guards in their hallways. Though the presence of guards in today’s schools are meant to assuage fears about school shootings and gun violence, often they had first been installed in the 1960s due to white fears stemming from desegregation.

The impact on our children is undeniable. One recent study, undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018, found that students in the United States graduate without an accurate understanding of Black history. In this poll, only eight percent of students correctly identified slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Teaching about the Civil Rights Movement falls short, too, with students developing an understanding of the struggle limited only to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Lesson plans on Black history are limited to February, Black history month, and often lack academic merit, missing the nuances and implications of milestone works of legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. Excluding this history from our classrooms engenders a lack of empathy and social skills required to excel in an increasingly diverse, complex society.

The picture is not wholly dire. The field of education, in recent years, has risen to meet the demands for a more equitable treatment of Black communities and other communities of color. State boards of education now largely embrace multiculturalism. A small number of states, including South Carolina, the onetime epicenter of secession, require Black history in middle and high school. In 2006, Mississippi passed legislation to ensure all students learn civil rights history. Texas standards now teach that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War (though states’ rights remains in the same standards). These are important first steps, but if we are to truly reform our system of education, and attempt to eradicate racism, we must first understand how the classroom has helped foster the many injustices of the past. Then we can look to the future.

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Jon Hale is an associate professor of education history at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He is the author of The Freedom Schools as well as a history of the school choice movement, The Choice We Face, which will be published next year.


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