Friday, February 02, 2007

History vs. heritage, with malice toward none

The Lee Monument, sculpted by Jean Antoine Mercie, was unveiled on May 29, 1890.
Having grown up in Richmond, I have been steeped in its dual sense of bitterness and pride over matters to do with, and stemming from, the Civil War. In 2007 it remains in the air we breathe at the fall line of the James River. I’ve lived most of my life in the Fan District, which is home to four statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy. There are more of them elsewhere in town.

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.
Photo by SLANT


Ward Smythe said...

Very well said F.T.

As a southernor with ancestors who fought for the South and (earlier) ancestors who did own slaves I have many of the same impressions you expressed.

I have no problem acknowledging the horrors of slavery and that in fact that was a huge (if perhaps not the only) motivating factor behind the war. Where I get annoyed is the ignorant notion that racism only existed in the South and that the North was populated with virtuous abolitionists. That's just ignorance speaking.

Your textbook does paint a picture that didn't exist. At the same time, and I have to be careful how I word this, I think we may have done the slaves a greater disservice by just turning them loose as an unskilled, uneducated population. Surely there was a better way to end slavery.

I just posted a link on my website to the "Amazing Grace" movie that is coming out in February. It tells the stories of William Wilberforce and John Newton, among others.

Vivian J. Paige said...

I think I used that same textbook. Somehow, it didn't jibe with the stories my father told me that his grandfather - a slave - told him.

I think we may have done the slaves a greater disservice by just turning them loose as an unskilled, uneducated population.

I agree with this assessment, although I am not sure what the alternative would have been.

Catzmaw said...

Wow, great post. And you've verified for me my memory of the history book I had in the 3rd grade in 1965. I can remember an illustration showing happy slaves toiling for a benevolent master in a field, and the text was very much like what you quoted from your 7th grade text. I remember asking what the slaves did during the Civil War and my teacher was very perplexed and implied that some of the slaves were unhappy about the Union invasion. I asked my Pennsylvania born, history buff dad about the issue and I remember he went through the roof when he saw the book. Pretty sure it was this incident that pushed him over the edge and got him to accede to my mother's request that we be sent to Catholic school in spite of our total lack of money. The nuns were from Pennsyvlania and that was the end of all the happy slave talk.

Ward Smythe said...

I don't know what the alternative would have been either Vivian. Some advocated for a slow release of the slaves into society. That sounds good in theory. But the prevailing attitude of the day would not have welcomed them anymore that way.

Check out the Amazing Grace movie. I think it's going to be pretty powerful.

F.T. Rea said...

Ward Smythe,

Thanks for your comments.

As for how best to have ended slavery, once it was entrenched, well, that’s a great question. It’s the tough question Southerners debated and ducked for a long time.

So, the good citizens of the slaveholding states debated it for decades and the question never was settled.

In some ways, maybe it was like an addiction. Perhaps it wasn’t going to be pretty, no matter how it ended. When you make a deal with the devil ...


That history book was given to me a few years ago by a friend, a retired educator who thought I might find it useful. When I saw it, I recognized it right away as a book I had used in school. Just a cursory read was a shocking but strange flashback.


You had an advantage over some of your peers -- your father. Be thankful you were luckier than some. And, thanks for commenting.

Kathy said...

F.T. - Thank you so much for an insightful and well-written diary. The quote from the text book says it all.

I've been looking at data on slaves and slaveholders here

Disclaimer that this database is maintained by folks in my group at work, but I'm not involved with it.

The 1790 figures agree, 292,627 to be exact, but by 1860 there were 490,865 slaves in Virginia. Around 450,000 of those slaves were in what is now Virginia (not WV).

The picture that emerges debunks the tiny handful of slaveowners idea. That idea does reflect the mountainous 9th CD to some degree, but here in the 5th CD is where a full 1/3 of the Virginia slaves lived in 1860. There were large plantations all across the lower 5th, where our poorest counties are today.

The leading slave county was Henrico (include Richmond). Ranking by slave population, Henrico was number 1. The next six are all in the 5th, and 13 among the top 25 most populous slave jurisdictions are in the 5th CD.

Combine those numbers with the fact that over the years there hasn't been the cultural exchange out here as there has been in environments such as Henrico-Richmond.

In 1860 there were 52,128 slaveholders in Virginia and on average they each owned 9.4 slaves. Along with the happy slave myth like the one in your textbook, we were also taught that Virginia did not have the massive operations like those in Mississippi because cotton wasn't the big product. The next piece of that fallacious argument is that Virginia slaveowners were benevolent and compassionate in comparison to other states.

There were 201,523 families in Virginia then, so at maximum 26% of families owned slaves since more than one person in a family could own slaves. That doesn't count the overseers and other families whose livelihoods depended on slavery but not ownership.

The 6% slave owner figure we see quoted so much must come from the slaveholder/ total white person ratio which is 5% for Virginia. That doesn't paint an accurate picture, since the average family size was 5.19, assuming that slave families were not recognized.

Again, thanks for a great diary. I'm going to be on the look out for old history textbooks now, and also look at this data more carefully.

Elvez73 said...

Great post, really captures the duality of being a proud Virginian, as I am, and realizing the horror of the past. Like you F.T. I have always admired Lee, but mostly for his actions and words after the war. While we in the Commonwealth have come along way on matters of race and inequality since 1865, those who claim that racism and economic injustice are a part of our past are walking around with blinders on. Really thought provoking piece.

Cynthia LMK. said...

"I think we may have done the slaves a greater disservice by just turning them loose as an unskilled, uneducated population."

I am only now beginning to learn the truth of this history. I grew up in Henrico and Hanover schools in the 60s and 70s. I am no expert on these matter,but I have learned that many scholars refer to "Failed Reconstruction." In grade school, I only heard about the Carpetbaggers and assumed reconstruction had been successful. However, from an AfAm/social justice perspective, it was not.The promise of 40 acres and a mule was not nearly fulfilled. I've only recently learned that.

However in early Reconstruction days there was a huge growth of political power and political-office-holding among the former slaves and free blacks. These changes were protected by the presence of the Union Army, and not exactly embraced by the South. A closed-door deal was struck that Rutherford Hayes would be president IF the Union forces were withdrawn. Those agreements were enacted, Jim Crow became the law and the initial attempts to right the wrongs of slavery were quickly dismantled throughout the South.

Though their approaches were quite different, W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington had much to say and do regarding these matters, and civil rights cases were being fought, even back then. There was more African American resistance than I have been led to believe.

I did not realize Massive Resistance was foaming out of my hometown, nor did I realize the larger historical setting for busing. I am ashamed I've not connected the dots of my childhood until now, but I am trying my damnedest to make up for lost time.

Malcolm said...

I have been looking for the 1961 seventh grade Virginia History textbook you mentioned for years. Would anyone know where I could get a copy of it. Please send me information on where I could get one at