Are Virginia Schools Still Teaching the Black Confederate Myth?

In the wake of the recent Virginia textbook scandal the general public was reassured by the Department of Education that the problem was being addressed.  I was contacted by the VDOE’s Director of Communications, Charles Pyle, following my NYTs editorial on the subject that proper action had been taken:

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provided detailed guidance to division superintendents and history specialists about the errors in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” on October 20 – the day the original Washington Post story was published. This guidance advised that the statement concerning the alleged service of black Southerners in the Confederate miliary is not in keeping with the Standards of Learning and is outside the bounds of accepted Civil War scholarship. The department consulted with several historians – including Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech – in preparing guidance for the field. This same week, two VDOE history specialists met personally with division history supervisors and classroom teachers during their back-to-back conferences in Williamsburg to raise awareness of the errors in the textbook and provide guidance about accurate instruction on the roles of blacks in both the Union and Confederate armies. Since late October, Superintendnet of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has communicated repeatedly with school districts providing additional guidance and information about actions of the department and the state Board of Education regarding Our Virginia: Past and Present. It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

This past week I was contacted by a concerned parent, who wrote the following:

If I may, just a follow up on a point by Mr. Pyle (VA Dept Ed) now that the Times story has died down.  My daughter is a 4th grader in —— County Public School system.  As Mr. Pyle pointed out, “It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”

My daughter just finished her Civil War unit, and despite Mr. Pyle’s assurances of ample guidance, Eva’s recent study guide for her test specifically included the point that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  I tried to explain to my daughter why this was not true, but because her own teacher had just lectured her on it she would not believe me.  She insisted that blacks fought because their masters threatened to kill them if they wouldn’t! I didn’t want to post this publicly because my aim is NOT to get my daughter’s teacher in trouble.  But —– County has done an abysmal job of correcting this misperception and my daughter is proof.  Mark my words, I bet that -CPS will still be using the erroneous textbook and any accompanying worksheets, study guides, etc next year.  Do you have any suggestions for a parent in my shoes?  I fear a visit to the principal or school board rep will be brushed off with the usual “We’ve got this under control…”  Thanks for your work!

I’ve heard other stories as well that suggest that this problem is not being adequately addressed.  I am not surprised.  I would recommend that this parent contact the proper authorities in her child’s district.  Perhaps a local committee of concerned parents can be organized.  After all, it was a concerned parent, who happened to be a historian, that initially exposed this problem.  The alternative is the continued dissemination of a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Civil War and Virginia history.

18 thoughts on “Are Virginia Schools Still Teaching the Black Confederate Myth?

  1. Frank

    The proper approach to the Virginia textbook fiasco should begin with trying to CORRECT the discussion of black confederates in line with what we know of them from reputable scholarship – e.g. the Confederate Louisiana Creoles that have been thoroughly documented in Bergeron’s article, the last ditch attempt to raise a black unit in Richmond in March 1865, and the occasional documented cases of individual black confederates who attached onto state militia units & Quantrill-type raiders at the war’s periphery.

    These will be much fewer in number than the “tens of thousands of black confederates” figures that get tossed around on the web, but I fear that the most common reaction to the Virginia school textbooks so far has been to simply exorcise the entire “black confederate” issue from the chapter in question, and that does its own disservices to the way students understand this issue.

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      I see your point — but you try explaining the social/racial/legal context of mid-nineteenth century Louisiana Creole culture to 4th graders — because that’s important to understanding the men described in Bergeron’s piece. ;-)

      History always gets more complex, the closer you dig into it. Textbooks like this always have to balance accuracy with a level of complexity that the audience can handle conceptually. It’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t envy the task of the textbook author. The problem in this case is that she didn’t even make much effort to get it right.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Frank,

        What needs to be corrected is the widely held assumption that the Confederate government viewed slaves as part of its citizenry. The black Confederate argument, in its popular form, is an attempt to blur this line and that is what creeped into the Virginia textbook. I fully support teaching a more complex narrative along the lines that you suggest, but whether it is appropriate at this stage in their history education is not at all clear.

        Reply
        1. Frank

          At least in what I’ve seen, the question “were there black confederates?” is far more central to how this discussion plays out in the public sphere than “were black confederates part of a broader concept of citizenry?” It’s dangerous to correct the latter while neglecting the former because it inevitably sets students up to be bombarded with incorrect information from both sides at a later date.

          The 4th grader who is told by his teacher that black confederates are, unequivocally and in all cases, a “myth” (which, like it or not, is the public line that was taken away from the media coverage after the Virginia textbook thing) is almost certain to encounter the typical “black confederate” stuff on the web at a later date in if he is even remotely interested in reading about the Civil War. It may happen then, or it may not happen until high school or college, but it will happen at some point. That leaves the student to sort out two conflicting claims on his own with VERY little readily available material representing the detailed and nuanced truths of the issue, which actually fall somewhere in between these extremes.

          Put differently, when the press asks an “expert” historian to comment on the Virginia textbook he or she should make it a point to explain the details of the Louisiana Creoles and the handful of individual genuinely verifiable black confederates in militias and partisan units while separating it from the outrageous claim that there were “tens of thousands” of them. Instead when the press comes calling, their typical answer is to dismiss the whole thing as a “myth” and close off the discussion there.

          That kind of rhetoric from certain sectors of the academy does every bit as much of a disservice to our knowledge of the topic as the wildest unverified claims of an SCV chapter website.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            You said: “That kind of rhetoric from certain sectors of the academy does every bit as much of a disservice to our knowledge of the topic as the wildest unverified claims of an SCV chapter website.”

            I think you’ve gone too far with this comparison. Actually, there was acknowledgment of the handful of black soldiers in interviews with academic historians. On this blog I have never denied the existence of a small handful of soldiers. I maintain, however, that the immediate problem is with the very vocal minority of people who are committed to the more outrageous claims that populate the Internet. This is what led to the Virginia textbook fiasco as well as a recent episode of the Antiques Road Show, which feature the famous photograph of Silas and Andrew Chandler.

            As for the claim that historians have not offered a more nuanced response compared to the SCV is simply not true: Consider this Countdown interview with Carol Sheriff. Olbermann read a letter from Ken Burns, who acknowledged that a few blacks may have fought in Confederate units and Carol Sheriff agrees. http://cwmemory.com/2010/10/21/black-confederates-on-countdown/ Mel Ely of William and Mary also acknowledges that small numbers may have served: http://cwmemory.com/2010/11/07/melvin-patrick-ely-debates-scv-on-fox/ I can supply additional references if needed. Of course, it is impossible to say much that is nuanced within the confines of mainstream media. I would have made a similar point last week on the radio time permitting.

            Reply
            1. Frank

              The “acknowledgment” they gave is little more than a watered down afterthought to the main and thoroughly dismissive refutation of the SCV claim. And more often it’s just an unaccompanied dismissal. For example, Sheriff said nothing about the state of actual scholarship on black confederates in her many interviews with the Washington Post last year when the story was hot and the comments she did give almost uniformly derided it as mythology.

              Levine is guilty of the same here, where he makes no mention of anything outside of the March 1865 episode in Richmond: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/local-opinions/2010/10/the_myth_of_the_black_confeder.html

              So is McPherson, who said the same thing when he was interviewed about it.

              You’re right that a newspaper doesn’t permit much space for a detailed analysis. But what we’re getting is barely any analysis but an abundance of heavily dismissive talk about the “myths” and “falsehoods” of “black confederates.”

              Instead, why can’t someone like Levine say this: “The SCV is wrong when it suggests there were tens of thousands of black confederates. Those numbers did serve as cooks and laborers to the Confederate army. For most it was not voluntary, and Richmond resisted calls by some Confederate generals to enlist them until the final month of the war. That said, we do know of some black confederates were able to join onto individual units in the west, and the Louisiana state militia had a unit of free black creoles before the fall of New Orleans in 1862. So yes, we know that some blacks fought for the confederacy but they were also far fewer in number than what is being claimed here.”

              If you really want to steal the thunder of the SCV types claiming “thousands,” why not say something like that instead of declaring it a giant “myth”? Why not call for revising the textbook to present a more factual account based on credible scholarship like Bergeron instead of covering up the “offensive” passage? That IMO would be a far more effective way of answering the inflated claims than the current strategy, which seems to do little more than (1) antagonize the SCV crowd and (2) perpetuate its own distorted version of history that tends to look past credible scholarship on the smaller number of black confederates that actually existed?

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                I certainly agree that more can be done on the part of historians to address this myth. Like I said, one of the problems is that mainstream media outlets do not lend themselves to such detail. I’ve had plenty of situations where I was interviewed on the subject and most of what I said was either cut out or distorted. Levine has stated on more than one occasion that there may have been a few black Confederates in addition to the select few who followed the March 1865 legislation.

                Reply
  2. Pingback: On the Myth of Black Confederates | Encyclopedia Virginia: The Blog

  3. Woodrowfan

    She insisted that blacks fought because their masters threatened to kill them if they wouldn’t!

    So the teacher thought it went something like this:
    Slave Owner: Fight! or I’ll kill you.
    Slave: OK
    Slave owner: Good, here’s a gun.

    There’s a problem with this plan, if I could just put my finger on it…

    Reply
  4. John Maass

    My daughter is a 4th grader in Fairfax Co. Her textbook had white stickers placed on top of the “offending” passages so that they cannot be read. Her teacher explained that there was an inaccuracy in the book about blacks fighting for the CSA in large #’s. My daughter was not taught that blacks were rebels in great #’s, which I was glad to hear. Now, FFX Co is a lot different in many ways that other counties in Va., esp. those not in No. Va., so it is not hard for me to believe the lady who wrote you above that some counties haven’t gotten the word…

    Reply
  5. David Rhoads

    I’ve got two sixth graders in school here in Orange County, Virginia, and I was helping them review for a social studies test tomorrow. Their study guide–a sheet containing topics and bullet points based on the History and Social Science Standards of Learning Curriculum for U.S. History to 1865 includes these two gems as the first two bullet points under Standard USI.9F, Effects of War: Effects of the war on African Americans:

    “• African Americans fought in both the Confederate and Union armies.

    “• The Confederacy ofen used enslaved African Americans as naval crew members and soldiers.”

    As the discussion in the comments here notes, the first of these two bullet points is literally true but is also extremely misleading because as written it implies an equivalency that is about as far from the truth as you can get.

    The second bullet point is an outright falsehood, the handful of Creole free black militia notwithstanding. The Confederacy as an official entity expressly prohibited blacks, free or slave, from enlisting as soldiers until the last few desperate weeks of the war and never fielded any black soldiers at all. Had this point said “The Confederacy ofen used enslaved African Americans as slaves” I’d have had no argument with it.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks David. I’ve received emails from around the state. This is clearly still a problem that needs to be addressed.

      Reply
  6. Waylon

    I am sorry that you people are so un-educated and closed minded, It is true that blacks did serve in the Confederate Army in the capacity of foot soldier, cook, and several other positions,,, My Confederate Ancester wrote of the many freed blacks that did fight along side there former employeers, and slave master, and I dont take kindly to you liberal idiots down grading our soldiers, by trying to say that just because they were cooks that didnt make them soldiers, If I am not mistaken our cooks in the military are also soldiers, and they never see battle, so does that make them less a soldier. The text books were right, so leave them alone and quit trying to push your liberal agenda on our children… PRESIDENT JEFFERSON DAVIS was right when he said, that history will be written by the winner of the war, to make our cause out to be wrong, You need to learn the truth about your countries History…. I bet you also beleive that the war was about slavery too right. What Idiots you are………. Also a little history lesson, if things were as bad as the text books and the liberals of this country made them out to be during that time, just think, that the cooks and black soldiers could have easily have crippled the entire Confederate army and that when all the men were off fighting, only a hand full of remaining slaves could have crippled the entire south by any type of small rebellion, but nothing like that ever happened, which amazes me, also when the war started President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee freed there slaves while General Grant and Abraham Lincoln kept there slaves until the end of the war,,,, this is fact, look it up in the archives. And too, you will not find one occasion of the Confederate Army killing, raping women and children, or destroying peoples property as you will the northern army. One last thing, Not One slave was bought or sold under the Confederat Flag, they were all bought and sold under the stars and stripes and the British flag. FACT look it up you Idiots.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Waylon,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s not that the “liberal idiots” are suggesting that cooks and servants were not slaves it is the Confederate soldiers themselves who consistently made the point in their letters and diaries. Your comments about Lee and Grant are simply without any basis in the historical record. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Reply
  7. Waylon

    Please be respectful and post my entire paragraph as I have typed it, please dont hateful and edit it like you want to do the text books, its not right.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I approved your comment as is. If you would like to re-format it in any way please do and I will delete the previous one.

      Reply

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