By Bethany Bell / Special To The Washington Post
Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced that Florida would block a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying the material advanced a “political agenda” on the “wrong side of the line” for the state.
This is only the latest in a series of attacks by GOP leaders on school curriculums in which they seek to replace inclusive histories with a sanitized, simplified and Eurocentric version of our nation’s past.
But deciding what students learn about the United States’ history of race and slavery was a contentious issue long before our current moment of fearmongering over critical race theory and other divisive topics. At the center of this history is an organization called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Beginning in the late 19th century, the UDC — a neo-Confederate organization that actively endorsed the Ku Klux Klan — made it its mission to instill a white supremacist version of history in generations of American children.
Even if you’ve never heard of the UDC, you are probably familiar with its work. Over a century ago, the UDC launched an offensive in the memory war over the history of slavery and the Civil War. The most visible results of its campaign are the hundreds of monuments to the Confederacy that still litter the landscape of the United States. Lurking in the shadow of these statues, however, is the less well-known history of how the UDC whitewashed history in public schools. Revisiting this history reveals how “Lost Cause” ideology was institutionalized in K-12 history education.
Throughout the 1870s, with the dismantling of Reconstruction — the period after the Civil War meant to secure political and economic opportunities for African Americans — white citizens successfully retook control of the political and social landscape of the South. During this time, several women’s memorial organizations ramped up their efforts to both honor the Confederate dead and to disseminate a version of history that celebrated the antebellum South. The need to reckon with the extreme loss they had experienced during the Civil War coalesced into a desire to vindicate the cause of the Confederacy as just and rationalize the antebellum racial order.
When the UDC was founded in 1894, it provided an enormously attractive opportunity for thousands of Southern women to exist in a socially acceptable public space. As a UDC member, a woman could develop professional skills like fundraising, lobbying and publishing yet still be considered a “Southern lady” because her work upheld the ideals of white supremacy. Though unable to vote until decades later, these women leveraged their elite social status, their familial connections to Confederate veterans and their avid support of the racial hierarchy to great effect in influencing state education policies. Ironically, it was a Reconstruction-era effort to implement widespread public education in the South that provided the most fertile ground for the UDC to cultivate what historian Karen Cox terms “Confederate Culture.”
The UDC was particularly focused on monitoring and producing public-school textbooks, through which it purported to promote an “impartial” history of the South. In 1897, the Daughters (as they were commonly called) formed a textbook committee in which they stamped their approval on textbooks that were consistent with Lost Cause ideology. Some members were prolific textbook writers themselves. Susan Pendleton Lee’s “A School History of the United States” romanticized slavery, decried emancipation and lionized Confederate leaders like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee (to whom she was related by marriage). Her book was used in South Carolina and Virginia public schools almost exclusively for several years.
In addition to writing and approving pro-Confederate history texts, the UDC successfully lobbied to ban textbooks it deemed “unfair” to the South. In 1920, the Daughters adopted criteria to determine whether a history book could be used in Southern schools, colleges and libraries. Their standards stipulated that secession was not rebellion, enslaved people had been treated well and that the “War Between the States” was not fought over slavery. Books that failed to affirm these standards were blacklisted by the UDC.
The UDC made it nearly impossible for schools to adopt textbooks that did not unequivocally uphold the Lost Cause. In 1932, when Virginia began using an American history textbook written by Massachusetts historian David Muzzey, the Daughters leaped into action. They bombarded state education officials with letters demanding the textbook be removed from the curriculum. In the end, the UDC was victorious. By 1938, Virginia had dropped use of Muzzey’s textbook altogether.
Although large-scale organized activity by the UDC was on the decline by the mid-20th century, perhaps in correlation with the rise of the civil rights movement, the ideas it promoted remained firmly rooted in the minds of the next generation. Many children who were indoctrinated with Lost Cause ideology grew up to advocate for state history books that looked kindly on the Confederacy and maintained racist depictions of African Americans.
For example, Virginia’s seventh-grade history textbook from 1957 contained depictions of slavery that are almost indistinguishable from textbooks from the 1920s. “Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery was generally happy,” the book claimed. “A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes.” This book was used in Virginia classrooms until at least 1980.
This history reveals how the forces on the losing side of the Civil War eked out a victory in the minds and the memory of U.S. citizens and maintained a grip on American history education for more than a century. Public schools could have been an important venue to reckon with racial injustice and teach new generations a history that acknowledged the nation’s wrongs and affirmed the dignity of marginalized people. Instead, the UDC’s battle to control American classrooms left a century’s worth of students with false understandings of the past.
And the legacy of this influence persists to the present. Although most of the textbooks written or supported by the UDC are no longer actively used, the falsehoods those books encouraged still permeate history education today. In 2015, a Texas parent famously called attention to a McGraw-Hill textbook that labeled enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” In 2018, when the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed high school seniors, only 8 percent of them could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Moves like DeSantis’ are only the latest salvo in a century-old war over the whitewashing of American history.
In recent years of racial reckoning, much of the national conversation has revolved around removing or recontextualizing Confederate memorials, many of which the UDC worked hard to construct. Activists are right to draw our attention to the legacy of white supremacy that these statues represent.
But the fingerprints of the UDC are also still visible in history education today, suggesting that its most substantial legacy is not what its members constructed in bronze and stone, but what they created from paper and ink. Monuments can be taken down. Flags can be removed. Ideas are much harder to uproot.
Bethany Bell is a master’s degree candidate in history at the University of Virginia where she is writing a thesis about African American memory of slavery and the Civil War era.
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