The Historical Profession: The Lost Cause and Historical Depictions of Slavery

III. Background

After the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, Southerners turned to the pen and paper to distort the historical past. In particular, this Lost Cause historical narrative of the South portrayed the Civil War as a conflict waged by Northern aggression against the “Southern way of life” and the mantra of states rights. Part of the Lost Cause mythos, was the Dunning School of historiographical thought which maintained that slaves enjoyed slavery, as it was white benevolent Southern slaveowners who provided enslaved persons food, housing, work, shelter, and medical treatment. According to the Dunning School, the North did not recognize this, but rather waged a war against an institution that helped enslaved blacks and African-Americans. Accordingly, Northern Republicans after the Civil War supposedly “embarrassed” and humiliated Southerners, by falsely elevating blacks to positions of citizenship and political authority.

As one can see, this historical narrative is founded upon white supremacy, historical distortion, and historical omission. However, the insidious and pernicious legacy of The Dunning School and the Lost Cause was that these ideas persisted throughout the 19th and 20thCentury. This ideology found its way into the film “Birth of a Nation”—the Star Wars or Marvel movie of its time in terms of popularity—and its depiction of the KKK as a heroic force served as a massive recruitment tool that sparked the growth of the Second Ku Klux Klan.

Perhaps even worse was the fact that the Dunning School found its way into textbooks that were used throughout the United States well up into the 1970s in some areas of the United States. Below you will find excerpts from textbooks that were used in New York City schools well into the 1960s. These textbooks were also used in predominantly black schools in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.


a. Slavery

“It was often a happy life for the slaves. They had no cares except to do their work well.” –Our United States, textbook approved 1949-1950

“If the master was kind, the slave enjoyed a happy and carefree life.” –Required History, textbook in use in 1950

“On the whole, the slaves of the South were considerately treated…They were, in most cases, adequately fed and cared for, and they submitted in general to their lot without protest. They probably did not work any harder than the northern ‘hired man,’ and at least they had fewer worries then about unemployment and the insecurity of old age.—The United States in the Making, textbook approved 1949-1950

“Most Southern people treated their slaves kindly. It was true that most of the slaves were happy. They did not want to be free. The people of the North did not understand this.”—Our America, textbook approved 1949-1950

“Was the slave system cruel? The usual method of punishing a slave was by whipping. This was not thought cruel. White children were frequently whipped by their parents and school teachers. White sailors in the navy and merchant marine were whipped.”—The American Story, textbook used throughout high schools in New York City

“Most planters treated their slaves fairly. Without making any apologies for the system, one may say that on most plantations the slaves were not harshly treated. The owners were kindly, humane men. The Negroes had to be encouraged to work because many of the were irresponsible, if not lazy; but there were ways of doing this, short of actual force.”—Story of America, textbook approved 1949-1950

“The planter, generally speaking, was intelligent enough to know that he, like the animal trainer, could get best results through kind treatment.”—Story of America

b. Reconstruction

“Some Negroes…thought that freedom meant no more work. They caused much trouble in the South, for sometimes they went about the country in gangs, begging, stealing, threatening people, and creating disorder…”—My Country, Later Leaders, textbook approved 1949-1950

“It was natural the Southern whites, to prevent their complete ruin, should wish to regain control of their own states…The only way to combat congressional legislation was with violence when other methods failed.”—Record of America, textbook approved 1949-1950

[discussing black political participation during Reconstruction]:But the multitude of Negroes who crowded the Assembly halls gave the majority an appearance of being overwhelming. They filled the porticoes and vestibules, and thronged the corridors and galleries in a dense mass, reveling in their newly acquired privileges. The air was heavy with the some of bad cigars, which, however, was not wholly without use, as the scent of the tobacco served at least one good purpose.”—Treasure Chest of Literature, Grade 8 reader that contained a selection by a notorious supporter of slavery

c. Excerpts from American Textbooks about African History

“Because the native people of Africa, most of whom belong to the Negro race are very backward, the greater part of the continent has come under the control of European nations since its opening up began.”—Distant Lands, Approved in NYC Schools 1949-1950

“The rugged nature of Ethiopia has prevented the development of its resources on the same scale as in some of the African countries under European influence, but the several thousand miles of motor roads built by the Italians when Ethiopia was under Italian control will be a start for improving conditions in the country…The native people are backward and of mixed race.”—Distant Lands, Approved in NYC Schools 1949-1950

[1948 study by the American Council on Education addressing the biased nature of geography textbooks]: “Africa is usually dealt with in world history and geography textbooks as a continent of strange and backward peoples, except, of course, for the Europeans who live there. Native people are assumed to possess only the simplest culture, vastly inferior to our own. The Negro, having come from such a place, is seen as a man without a worthy past…The facts concerning African culture have a bearing upon the competence of the Negro as a man.”

[Another excerpt from the 1948 study] “Scientific research and scholarship reveal that African social organization is complex, and that African cultural achievements are far greater than is generally known. The textbooks, however, as a rule do one of two things: They either say nothing about African culture and achievement, and thereby deny by omission that they are worth of mention; or they state that the people are backward and simple. There is need for re-examination of these concepts in the light of scientific findings. The facts concerning African culture have a bearing upon the competence of the Negro as a man.”



In at least 250-word response, respond to the questions below.

1.   Discuss particular passages that resonated with you from Section V.

2.   Researchers had found that racially segregated schools created psychological feelings of inferiority in black students. How might the historical interpretations, depicted in the following textbook excerpts in Section V also engender psychological feelings of inferiority?

3.   Historian Herbert Aptheker argued in the 1940s that American history was subject to a dual offense of “distortion and omission” that distorted black life while also omitting black figures. Similarly, passages interpreting the history of African peoples also seem to be guilty of this dual offense of distortion and omission. How is the practice of omitting select peoples also a harmful historical practice? What is worse—distortion or omission?


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