5 things Virginia schools taught about slavery and the Civil War during the Confederate monuments boom


By Matt McKinney
The Virginian-Pilot
Sep 21, 2017


Cities across the country – including several in South Hampton Roads – are debating the future of their Confederate monuments. Many of the public symbols went up between the late 1890s and 1920s, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Historians widely attribute the statues to the Lost Cause movement, which emerged in the South during that period and romanticized the Confederacy while minimizing the role of slavery in the Civil War.


The Virginian-Pilot dug into what the state’s public schools taught about slavery and the Civil War during that period, using century-old books housed at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. To identify books, we used annual state Board of Education catalogs that included recommended textbooks.


Based on those texts, here are five things Virginia public schools taught about slavery and the Civil War during the first part of the 20th century:


1. Slaves were “better off” on plantations than in Africa


“In their own country they were cannibals, or man-eaters, and very degraded in every way. They were much better off in this country, where they were taught to know about God and other things which were good for them.” – “Magill’s First Book in Virginia History,” by Mary Tucker Magill, 1908.


“There were some cruel and inconsiderate masters, of course; but they were exceptions. … As a general rule the slaves were happy and contented and were faithful to their owners.” – “School History of Virginia” by Edgar Sydenstricker and Ammen Burger, 1914.


“The people of the South had been exasperated by the falsehoods told about them by the Northern Abolitionists. They had been accused of being cruel to their negro slaves, whereas the truth was that very few cases of cruelty ever existed.” – “School History of Virginia.”


2. Slave owners opposed freeing slaves out of concern for their well-being


“Even in eastern Virginia were to be found a great many slave owners who earnestly wished that there could be found some way to put an end to it. There were two difficulties in the way: one was that negro slaves were not able to take care of themselves should they be set free suddenly, and the other was that their owners had spent a great deal of their money for slaves in order to operate their plantations, and they could not afford to set free the slaves unless they could get back what had been spent buying them.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“[It] must be remembered that the owning of the ignorant and helpless negroes by kind white masters was probably the best thing for the negroes themselves at that time. Nearly all of them were well cared for, housed and fed and treated with kindness and consideration. … Coming from Africa they were civilized more quickly by being and around the homes of cultivated people that could have been done in any other way in those days.” – “School History of Virginia.”


3. Slave owners would have abolished slavery but the North stopped them


“In the north people opposed to slavery became so fanatical and so bitter that they angered the southern people by what they said, and made it all the harder for southern people to find some fair and right way of freeing the slaves. These northern fanatics were called Abolitionists because they wanted to abolish slavery without any thought of the consequences to the slaves or to the slave owners.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“Had not the Abolitionists angered many of the slave owners by their false accusations and their interference and aided in the stirring of the slaves to violence, and had not the Civil War put an end to their plans, Virginians would have gradually set free all of the slaves and put an end to slavery without so great harm to both the negroes and their white masters.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“Probably most Southerners wanted to see slavery stopped, and many southern slave owners had freed their slaves of their own accord. … As the slavery question was discussed year after year, misunderstandings and hate crept in and made it impossible for the two sides to agree on any plan.” -“School History of Virginia.”


“Virginia never liked [slavery.]” – “First Book in the History of Virginia.”


4. Slave owners simply wanted to be left alone and be allowed to self-govern


“In the south, there was no desire for shedding blood or engaging in warfare. All the southern people wanted was to be let alone and to be allowed to govern themselves as they believed to be right.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“The southern people did not think that it was fair to the slave owners to take their slaves away, because slaves represented money, nor did they believe that sudden freedom would be beneficial to the slaves themselves, who were too ignorant and helpless to take care of themselves.” -“School History of Virginia.”


“The majority of the Southern people did not think that war would come, and a great many Northern people were in favor at this time of letting the Southern state go without any trouble. Had it not been for a different view held by President Lincoln and other northern people … it is possible that there would have been two nations without any conflict.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“[In the U.S. Constitution] it was made very plain that the state laws were not to be interfered with, and from neglect of this the trouble came.” – “First Book in the History of Virginia.”


5. After the Civil War, many slaves didn’t understand what freedom meant
“The negroes did not want to fight against their masters, and were only frightened.” – “First Book in the History of Virginia”


“The slaves who had done their work and in whom they had invested large portions of their wealth, were now free to do as they pleased, and in their ignorance of what freedom meant, many of them refused to work for wages, or worked so irregularly that their services could not be depended upon.” – “School History of Virginia.”


“The situation must have seemed desperate indeed. To make it worse, if possible, adventurers from the North and from Europe flocked into Virginia to take advantage of the opportunities to buy land cheaply and to gain prominence for themselves by teaching irresponsible and ignorant negroes to vote.” – “School History of Virginia.”


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