That is what we were taught in school in the 1950s; nothing has changed. According to many of my correspondents, blacks resent white people – specifically like myself – who support equal rights for blacks and other people of color. One particular email got my attention. My interlocutor told me that Hispanics he knew resented “liberals” who caused trouble. “The context is that persons of color want you whites to clam up about helping them and just mind your own business. Except for the opportunists (of color), of course.” He asked, “Why do more whites than blacks support voting rights for blacks?”
The writer appears blissfully unaware that he repeated a theme that slave-owners, the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, Jim Crow politicians, nativists, and the current bunch (whatever you want to call them) have employed since the presence of blacks became an issue in America. They argued in the early 19th century that the Abolitionists “riled up” black slaves who in fact were quite content with their lot. Slave owners, having failed to keep busybody white people’s noses out of their profitable human chattel businesses through the courts and various legislatures, often turned to violence. In 1830 for example, they incited anti-abolitionist riots in New York, rousing newly arrived Irish immigrants against ‘elitist’ Manhattanites who opposed slavery, killing hundreds and burning down half the town.
Starting in 1856, slave owners attacked anti-abolitionists and plunged Kansas into a ten-year bloodbath, nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas.” Oddly, the Kansas National Park Service website, Bleeding Kansas, takes a neutral moral position and leaves readers to conclude that the abolitionists, not the pro-slavers, did most of the killing.
My own 1950s schoolbooks portrayed Reconstruction, the too-short period of federal occupation of the rebellious slave states, as a sordid time when vindictive Radical Republicans foisted black supremacy upon the defeated Confederacy. We read about ‘carpetbaggers’, northern businessmen who went south to loot the wealth of innocent southerners aided and abetted by ‘scalawags’, southern-born traitors who turned against their fellow whites. Our schoolbooks portrayed illiterate blacks seizing state governments and abusing whites. This narrative erased the accomplishments of black-majority state governments. These accomplishments included the first state-funded public schools in the South, expanding railroads, strengthening the bargaining power of plantation laborers, and outlawing racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. It all came apart when a political deal in Washington ended Reconstruction and re-established white supremacy, with a generous use of violence.
The post-reconstruction era saw a radical rewriting of history, reviving the Confederacy as a place of debutante balls, genteel manners, and blacks happily serving their white masters. Dastardly northerners, out to pillage and plunder destroyed this idyllic society. If you can find it, I recommend readers view Birth of a Nation, a 1915 feature film that laments the pillaging of the South by invading northern carpetbaggers, portrays blacks as vicious rapists roaming the countryside looking for white virgins, and celebrates the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. The era also spawned the construction of thousands of monuments to prominent figures in the rebellion against America.
The recapture of power by white supremacists in the South ushered in the Jim Crow Era, a period that saw the almost complete derogation of all political agency to their black communities. Jim Crow also provoked the ‘Great Migration’, the flight of several million southern blacks to northern cities seeking, like today’s refugees, a haven from the brutality of those who governed them. That flow of refugees also transplanted southern social mores, i.e., fear and hatred of blacks, to many poor and lower middle class white communities in the north.
Today we hear from ‘conservatives’ (mostly a euphemism for right wing extremism), accusations that Black Lives Matter is a communist plot to seize power in America. By extension, any person today who sees a movement for justice in BLM gets tarred with the same accusation of communism.
We should not forget that then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched a poorly concealed smear campaign against Martin Luther King based on past associations with leftist writers and with an added dose of leaked sexual titillation. Nothing has changed since then in the anti-black playbook.
Right wing politicians have labeled Critical Race Theory as the new Communist Manifesto. The far-right targets public school systems and elects politicians who will ensure that nothing will be taught to “make children uncomfortable” – meaning white children only. Children of color can just listen to their teachers tell them about the wonderful life of their enslaved ancestors.
One educator, a teacher at a prep school in Virginia, entertained me for an hour with his thesis that freeing blacks from slavery caused their current miserable state. One wonders what he teaches his students.
Let me close with a few excerpts from a 1950 Virginia public school textbook that evoked eerie memories of my childhood. The textbook is Virginia: History, Government, Geography” by Francis Butler Simkins et. al. (Credits to Dana Millbank for resurrecting it.)
“A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes…”
“… Negroes were taught to read and write… allowed to meet in groups for preaching, for funerals, and for singing and dancing…Most of them were treated with kindness.”
“The tasks of each [house slave] were light…(they were taught) the finer things in life…”
The Virginia textbooks further describe the working conditions of field slaves in terms that Starbucks would envy. One sentence stands out: The planter often kept a close eye upon [the overseer] to see that the slaves were not overworked or badly treated.” (Does the new Virginia governor want to reinstate that textbook?)
In fairness to DC public schools, our textbooks noted that slaves working the fields were treated worse than house slaves.