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Book Displays: Equal Justice Initiative 2023: Jul

July's Topic - The Racist Teaching of History

Sarah L. Murphy teaches children in a two-room schoolhouse in Rockmart, Georgia, on June 23, 1950

Calendar photo caption: Sarah L. Murphy teaches children in a two-room schoolhouse in Rockmart, Georgia, on June 23, 1950. (Associated Press)

Calendar Text

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "One cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying." In a chapter entitled "The Propaganda of History," he exposed how most textbooks' portrayal of Reconstruction as a failure caused by Black people's inherent incapacity for self-government was a gross distortion in service of white supremacy.

American history textbooks have promoted racial hierarchy since the 19th century, when they centered the nation's history on white people and relegated Indigenous "savages" and Black people to permanently inferior status.

In the 20th century, racial bigotry pervaded history books used in many schools. A 1927 history textbook argued, "Nothing is more certain than that the Fathers of the Republic intended America to be a 'white man's country.'" The first page of American History (1930) defined history as "The Story of the White Man."

Most textbooks, if they mentioned slavery at all, romanticized it, minimized its horrors, and depicted enslaved people as happy and child-like. A Child's History of North Carolina (ca. 1916) taught that enslaved people "were allowed all the freedom they seemed to want, and were given the privilege of visiting other plantations when they chose to do so. All that was required of them was to be in place when work time came."

These textbooks were produced by the nation's leading publishing houses, but as the historian Eric Foner decried, "Neither the historical profession nor the publishing industry has fully acknowledged its decades-long complicity in disseminating the poisonous idea that Black Americans are unfit for participation in American democracy."