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.

Al Jazeera Reports on the Sesquicentennial

This is an interesting little report on the commemorative events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter.  A number of people are interviewed, but what I find so interesting is the difference in tone between NPS interpreter, Michael Allen and the Kennedy brothers (aka the Civil War’s Statler and Waldorf), who identify themselves as “Southern Historians.”  I just love that reference.  It has nothing to do with regional identification because if it did they would have to include hundreds of historians who were all born and raised in the South.  I live in the South.  Am I a Southern Historian in their eyes?  You get my point.  No, that identification marks a certain way of looking at the history of the South and its tone is overly defensive and presentist – a perspective that I suspect does not reflect the views of most white and black southerners.  The language used reflects very little interest in the nineteenth century itself.  Just listen to these two describe the federal government as tariff and money obsessed and intent on going around the world to oppress innocent people at the point of a bloody bayonet.

You certainly leave with a sense of their emotional connection to the issue, but it’s not much of an explanation.

The bigger problem here is that the media’s insistence on interviewing people like the Kennedy brothers reinforces the assumption that this is the Southern view of the war.  They may be entertaining and they may refer to themselves as Southern historians, but they do not speak for the South.

Where Historians Stand on Black Confederates

One of the points that I tried to make in my radio interview yesterday morning was that while there is a vibrant and often heated discussion about the existence and loyalty of black Confederates this is simply not true within the scholarly community.  Academic historians have studied this issue closely and have done extensive work on how the Confederate government and military attempted to utilize its slave population.  There is a rich literature on various aspects of this subject that can be accessed by those, who are sincerely interested in learning more.

If you want a thorough summary of where historians stand on this issue I highly recommend Jaime Amanda Martinez’s recent entry on the subject at Encyclopedia Virginia – part of the Virginia Foundation for the HumanitiesMartinez teaches at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and is currently working on a book-length manuscript on slave impressment, which is crucial to understanding this subject.  At the bottom of the entry you will find a short list of essential readings.  I would only add Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, which includes a though-provoking chapter on the steps that slaveholders took to resist impressment of their property for wartime purposes.

We have a choice.  We can remain preoccupied with questions of numbers and emotional pleas that slaves wished to remain enslaved or we can set aside these simplistic assumptions that tell us more about our own values and look for more interesting questions and analysis.

From a Great Tragedy to a New Birth of Freedom

Civil War Proclamation No. 3882

By The President of The United States of America:
The years 1961-1965 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the American Civil War.

The war was America’s most tragic experience. But like all truly great tragedies, it carries with it an enduring lesson and a profound inspiration. It was a demonstration of heroism and sacrifice by men and women of both sides, who valued principles above life itself and whose devotion to duty is a proud part of our national inheritance.

Both sections of our magnificently reunited country sent into their armies men who become soldiers as good as any who ever fought under any flag. Military history records nothing finer than the courage and spirit displayed at such battles as Chickamauga, Antietam, Kennesaw Mountain and Gettysburg. That America could produce men so valiant and so enduring is a matter for deep and abiding pride.

The same spirit on the part of the people back home supported those soldiers through four years of great trial. That a Nation which contained hardly more than 30 million people, North and South together, could sustain 600,000 deaths without faltering is a lasting testimonial to something unconquerable in the American spirit. And that a transcending sense of unity and larger common purpose could, in the end, cause the men and women who had suffered so greatly to close ranks once the contest ended and to go on together to build a greater, freer and happier America must be a source of inspiration as long as our country may last.

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NPS Talks Slavery and Battlefield Interpretation

One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters.  The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields.  There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.