At a Labor Day press conference Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump complained that “we grew up with a certain history, and now they’re trying to change our history.” He was referring to the recent conversations on, among other things, the movement to remove Confederate monuments, the renaming of military bases, and the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a series of essays and other works published last year that sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Trump’s remarks were quite different from what Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Biden said that the protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake might help Americans confront our racist past. “We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re going to be addressing the original sin of this country, 400 years old … slavery and all the vestiges of it.”
Some might be uncomfortable with the notion of “original sin,” but it’s hard to quibble with Biden’s implication that we have never acknowledged the enormity of slavery.
I talk about this with my students—not just the reality of slavery, but how people have thought of it over the years.
Charles Henry Smith, a popular Georgia writer (his weekly column in the Atlanta Constitution, published from 1878 to 1903 under the penname of Bill Arp, was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the South), wrote A School History of Georgia in 1893 that described slavery as “a blessing to both races”: a blessing to whites for supplying the labor that brought them prosperity, but also “a blessing to the negro, because it brought him from a savage state to semi-civilization, and elevated his children and gave them a chance to live as human beings and to worship God as Christians.” In a section titled “The Condition of the Negro as a Slave,” Smith wrote that “the relation of master and slave was one of tenderness and humanity.” He offered prison statistics to show that, without the guidance of slavery, black crime increased after the Civil War. “The old negroes, who were trained while in bondage by good masters, are not in the chain gang, and it is pitiful to hear them lament in sorrow over the sins of their children.”
Historically, the history of slavery has featured a lot of whitewashing.
In 1903, Lawton Evans’s History of Georgia for Use in Schools became the first Georgia history textbook to be approved by the state’s new textbook commission. Evans’s one-paragraph discussion of slavery described it as a benign institution:
The negroes belonging to the plantations lived in small houses, generally built in a row, and called the “negro quarters,” or “the quarters.” Being well treated, they were free from care, and were, therefore, happy, and devoted to their masters. After the day’s labor they had their simple sports, such as dancing, playing the banjo, and ’possum hunting. They were fond of singing, even at their work. And at night, around the fire in “the quarters,” or at their meeting houses, they would sing their melodies in rich, musical voices. The white children considered it a great privilege to play around “the quarters” and listen to the stories of “Brer Rabbit” and “Brer Fox” related by the old negroes.
This is what the first generation of school children in twentieth-century Georgia learned about slavery. I wonder if Margaret Mitchell read this book as a child.
In its discussion of slavery, Evans’s History of Georgia was remarkably similar to earlier textbooks. John Neely’s Confederate States Speller & Reader, published in Augusta in 1864, taught Confederate children how to spell and read through the use of short passages. An example (with words of more than one syllable divided to help the student): “In Sep-tem-ber you may see the ne-groes pick-ing cot-ton. Hark! How mer-ri-ly they sing as they pick the white cot-ton from the pods, and throw it into the bas-ket. These ne-groes are well fed, and well clad, and well cared for when they are sick. When their task is done, there is noth-ing to trou-ble them.” So Evans described slavery in the same terms that students read when slavery still existed.
In 1913, Lawton Evans lost his place at the top of the textbook commission’s list to a new book by Robert Preston Brooks, whose History of Georgia noted that “the consensus of opinion among modern scientific students of history is that on the whole slaves were well treated.” (Brooks had a Ph.D. in history, and his writing style showed it.) Brooks wrote that though slaves came to America “as savages, members of a race which had never contributed anything to civilization, the enforced labor of two hundred years taught a considerable proportion of them habits of industry.” Dr. Brooks referred several times to “the training of slavery.” He also wrote that “the negro, like all stupid and ignorant people, was stubbornly opposed to new ideas [in agriculture].”
This history was persistent and pervasive. In 1929, Georgia’s General Assembly urged each of the state’s counties to compile and publish its history for the upcoming bicentennial (1933, two hundred years after the founding of Georgia in 1733). About three dozen did so, and those volumes are a wonderful resource for seeing how many people in Georgia viewed their past. The typical slave in Gwinnett county was “a contented, well-fed and happy negro,” and the Dougherty County historian noted that slaves there were “devoted to their masters’ families and loyal to their masters’ material interests.” Slaves in Upson County “were treated very kindly indeed, and only in rare instances was there any trouble between slave and master.” Like the textbook authors, the county historians often saw slavery as having been beneficial to blacks as well as whites. “The evolution of a savage race into a state of ordinary civilization must necessarily be under the close guidance of a superior people,” wrote the Chattahoochee County historian. “In no way could this be accomplished more rapidly than through the system of slavery under humane masters.” In Coffee County, “the training the negroes received while they were slaves has been a great blessing to them.”
Things have changed since 1930, of course. For one thing, Georgia history textbooks are a lot better now. But as a nation we still tend to whitewash history; we still refuse to acknowledge the role that slavery has had in our past. And until we change that history—the history that many of us grew up with—it will be difficult to understand the role that slavery and its vestiges continue to play in American society.