To know what it was like in Virginia in the past we turn to history. It comes to us in many ways -- stories told, popular culture and schooling among them. In 1961, my seventh grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools -- as decreed by the General Assembly -- had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
“...Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.”
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph’s veracity. Baseball was my No. 1 concern in those days. Now those words read differently.
Yet to know enough to see that difference, I’ve had to keep my mind open to other accounts of how it was in Virginia in the time of slavery. Living through the Civil Rights Era, with its bombings, assassinations, marches, sit-ins, boycotts and school-closings, did much to show me a new light. However, for me, there was no moment of epiphany, no sudden awareness I was growing up in a part of the world that officially denied many aspects of its past.
The process was gradual. More than anything else, it was life experience that taught me to look more deeply into things. Now I know that dusty old history book was an important part of what facilitated Jim Crow. Now I know better than what I was taught as a child.
Nonetheless, that same history text book’s view of how it was for those enslaved is one that some Virginians still want to believe. It’s probably what they were taught as children, too. Many of this persuasion also cling to the bogus factoid that since most Southerners didn’t hold slaves, the Civil War itself was not fought over slavery.
Which is preposterous.
Of course poor Southerners, those who weren’t plantation owners, had little to do with starting the Civil War. Generally speaking, poor people with no clout don’t start wars; rich people with plenty of power do.
So, for the most part, the men who fought in gray uniforms were doing what they saw as their duty. As with most wars, most of the men who died for either side between 1861 and 1865 were just ordinary Joes who had no say-so over declaring war or negotiating peace.
If the reader really wants to know why Virginia eventually left the Union, to follow the secessionist hotheads of South Carolina and Mississippi into war, here’s a clue from Chapter 30 of that same history book, which opened with this:
“In 1790 there were more than 290,000 slaves in Virginia. This number was larger than that of any other state...”
Those 290,000 slaves were worth a lot of money to their owners. The largest part of the real blame for the bloodshed of the war, and the subsequent indignities of the Reconstruction Era, rests with those wealthy slaveholders who would not give up their cheap labor without a fight.
Readers interested in how much the official record of the Civil War has changed over the decades since the Civil Rights Era, should pay a visit to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Unlike it was at one time, its telling of the story of the Civil War is based on the unvarnished truth. Its scholarly CEO, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., would have it no other way.
Moreover, I am proud to be a Virginian. My ancestors go back to the 1600s in this commonwealth. But I will not stand with anyone, Virginian, or whatever, who says they want stay the course with the absurd denials of history that were crammed into that old public school text book.
Sometimes it seems a few of my friends in Richmond haven’t had a fresh thought on matters racial since they were seventh-graders. At the same time, I don’t want to pick a fight with them, so mostly we talk about other things -- baseball still works. Still, those cats know if they try to run that “it’s my Southern Heritage” baloney past me it just won’t work.
All that said, Robert E. Lee, whose spectacular monument I see every day, remains a man I admire. The dual sense of tragedy and dignity his statue conveys is striking. In his time and place, Lee did what he saw as his duty. I respect that. After the war he urged his fellow Virginians to let it go -- to move on.
That was good advice in 1865. It still is.