Teaching American History: The Place of Slavery

William H. Young

My July 2018 article The Misappropriation of Madison and Montpelier disclosed how Montpelier now tells the story of James Madison as slaveholder more than father of the Constitution, of how slavery was rooted and protected in the Constitution, and of how that legacy is manifested in America today. Moreover, in February 2018, the Montpelier Foundation along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation had convened an inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery, with the goal of expanding that mission nationally by creating “a universal rubric that could be used in schools and historic institutions.”

This article explains the active effort underway to apply that rubric in teaching slavery in public schools. The rubric implements the beliefs of the academic left that white supremacy and institutional racism from slavery rather than behavioral or cultural problems are the sources of today’s black economic and social disparities.

A key assertion of the rubric is that slavery still determines the life chances of blacks in America. A Pew Research survey released in April 2019 showed that eight-in-ten black adults—and now also most other American adults—accept the belief that slavery continues to impact black lives.

  

The National Summit Report

On October 19, 2018, Montpelier and the National Trust, supported by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, issued the National Summit Report, Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.1 The National Summit Report builds upon the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new textbook supplement, Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery,1 which is already being promoted for public schools across America and publicized on outlets such as National Public Radio.

In the National Summit Report, its “rubric” is the “methodology for openly addressing the central role slavery played in the development of the United States, as well as its lasting impact on American society today.”

The much needed truth-telling about slavery’s role in the shaping of the United States, the legacy it continues to have on race relations in America, and lingering institutional disparities that prevent all Americans from realizing the ideals expressed in our founding documents.

The Report goes on to say:

This rubric will assist institutions as they engage not just the public, but also their own employees, leadership, boards, and donors, who may have never heard these truths, and find them threatening to the ideals upon which they believe the country was founded, and more personally, threatening to their perceptions of themselves…

This rubric can help them avoid reactionary practices and prevent them from knowingly or unintentionally contributing to an interpretation of history that provides inauthentic accounts and meaning-making that serves to alienate and traumatize visitors of color. As teachers of history, we strive to ensure a more inclusive narrative….3

The Report would put in place at all national museums and historic sites the same rubric applied at Montpelier and described in my earlier article.

  

A Framework for Teaching American Slavery

That document was introduced on January 31, 2018, by an SPLC report, also titled Teaching Hard History. The Executive Summary of the document confirms its application of the rubric:

American enslavement of Africans defined the nature and limits of American liberty; it influenced the creation and development of the major political and social institutions of the nation; and it was a cornerstone of the American prosperity that fueled our industrial revolution. It’s not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history.

Slavery’s long reach continues into the present day. The persistent and wide socioeconomic and legal disparities that African Americans face today and the backlash that seems to follow every African American advancement trace their roots to slavery and its aftermath. If we are to understand the world today, we must understand slavery’s history and continuing impact.4

A key participant at the National Summit at Monticello was Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board of SPLC. Professor Jeffries amplifies that interpretation of the rubric further in the Preface:

In the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers enumerated the lofty goals of their radical experiment in democracy; racial justice, however, was not included in that list. Instead, they embedded protections for slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade into the founding document, guaranteeing inequality for generations to come. To achieve the noble aims of the nation’s architects, we the people have to eliminate racial injustice in the present. But we cannot do that until we come to terms with racial injustice in our past, beginning with slavery.

It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.

Slavery was also our country’s Achilles’ heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior….

Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it…

Students lack a basic knowledge and understanding of the institution, evidenced most glaringly by their widespread inability to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

This is profoundly troubling because American slavery is the key to understanding the complexity of our past. How can we fully comprehend the original intent of the Bill of Rights without acknowledging that its author, James Madison, enslaved other people?...

Our discomfort with hard history and our fondness for historical fiction also lead us to make bad public policy. We choose to ignore the fact that when slavery ended, white Southerners carried the mindsets of enslavers with them into the post-emancipation period, creating new exploitative labor arrangements such as sharecropping, new disenfranchisement mechanisms including literacy tests and new discriminatory social systems, namely Jim Crow. It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate these legal barriers to equality, but that has not been enough to eliminate race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education and employment to wealth and well-being. Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as a final result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.

Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems.

The intractable nature of racial inequality is a part of the tragedy that is American slavery.5

Few would disagree that an accurate history of slavery should be taught in American schools and that current curriculum deficiencies should be corrected. It is quite another matter, however, to teach, as the SPLC’s rubric does, that America’s governing and economic institutions have been imbued with slavery from our very beginning and that such institutional racism is still prevalent today.

The rubric incorporates the narrative of the academic left: America was founded on and continues to practice white supremacy (white males denying equal opportunity); and America’s institutions are racist and responsible for the inequality of today’s blacks. Left unsaid is the next step of the academic left’s narrative—its identity ideology (human beings are defined by race, gender, and sexual preference) would consolidate power over our governing institutions according to the norms of multicultural social justice rather than our founding ideals.

  

Teaching Slavery in Public Schools

Professor Jeffries is making nationwide appearances to promote the SPLC slavery initiative. His interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” titled, “Why Schools Fail to Teach Slavery’s ‘Hard History’,” presented the following kinds of arguments.

Jeffries first highlighted the most dismal result of the SPLC’s new, multiple-choice survey of about 1,000 American seniors: only eight percent chose slavery as the reason the South seceded from the Union and fought the Civil War.

The SPLC survey laid out several key problems with the way slavery is often presented to students and suggested ways that it should be addressed. Among them:

Textbooks and teachers tend to accentuate the positive, focusing on heroes like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass without also giving students the full, painful context of slavery.

Slavery is often described as a Southern problem. It was much, much more. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was a problem across the colonies. Even in the run-up to the Civil War, the North profited mightily from slave labor.

Slavery depended on the ideology of white supremacy, and teachers shouldn’t try to tackle the former without discussing the latter.

Too often, the report says, “the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected.” Instead, lessons focus on politics and economics, which means focusing on the actions and experiences of white people.

The survey also interviewed social studies teachers, many of whom reported feeling uncomfortable teaching slavery and said they get very little help from their textbooks or state standards. One teacher from Maine was quoted as saying:

I find it painful, and embarrassing (as a white male), to teach about the history of exploitation, abuse, discrimination and outrageous crimes committed against African-Americans and other minorities, over many centuries—especially at the hands of white males. I also find it very difficult to convey the concept of white privilege to my white students. While some are able to begin to understand this important concept, many struggle with or actively resist it.

Jeffries noted that the SPLC is most critical of state content standards because “none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery.”6

The SPLC report “Teaching Hard History” concludes that

The United States needs an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery…[which] will require some work by state educational departments, teacher preparation programs, school boards, textbooks, publishers, museums, professional organizations, and thought leaders…7

While Jeffries notes several ways in which teaching the history of slavery needs to be improved, his focus on white supremacy makes his tie to the academic left’s agenda clear.

  

Messages to the Public

In The Misappropriation of Madison and Montpelier, I presented the remarks of Montpelier Director Margaret H. Jordan in 2017 in The Washington Post regarding the opportunities that museums and historic exhibits of African American history and culture—using the new standard rubric—have to change public beliefs about institutional racism in both American history and contemporary society:

On a deeper level, …[these] places invite us to examine not only our painful past but also our present-day biases. They compel us to explore how the legacy of slavery affects our perspectives about race and human rights. And they provide a starting point to have the difficult conversations we need to have to move forward as a society. As the “Mere Distinction of Colour” states, “From mass incarceration to the achievement gap, to housing discrimination, and the vicious cycles of poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity throughout America’s inner cities, the legacies of 200 years of African American bondage are still with us.”

It is only through this examination and introspection—of our history in its entirety, of our diverse experiences and of the preconceptions that divide us—that deeper understanding and respect, and ultimately progress, will come.8

In another interview that year with NBC News, Ms. Jordan stressed the necessity of the new exhibit at Montpelier:

There is stuff we have never resolved in America. We must deal with our foundations: slavery was subtly written in [the] Bill of Rights and Constitution…Looking at the institutional racism we still face today is in large part because the textbooks are not teaching the truth of our American history in our schools.9

Another interviewee, Patrice Preston-Grimes, commented about the kind of white change that the Montpelier exhibit might bring about:

You start by talking to people who are different than you…take back your personal power…You don’t understand privilege until you don’t have it…White people must acknowledge that they have benefitted from what they personally did not partake in…White guilt is real.10

These statements reflect the view of the academic left that the American public must be fundamentally re-educated if institutional racism is to be eliminated.

  

Recent National Surveys

Interestingly, a new Pew Research Center Report Race in America 2019, issued on April 9, 2019, opens with the following sentence:

More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today.11

In the Pew survey, more than eight-in-ten black adults and majorities of all other Americans say that slavery still has a fair amount of impact on black people today. Fifty-nine percent of black adults say slavery affects them a great deal.12

This appears to be the first time that Pew has surveyed public opinion on the impacts of slavery on black life prospects today—coincident with the national drive for education about slavery and such impacts. The last Pew survey on race and inequality, in June 2016, emphasized the

profound differences between black and white adults in their views on racial discrimination, barriers to black progress and the prospects for change. Blacks, far more than whites, say black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life.13

In its 2019 survey, Pew also found that about eight-in-ten blacks say the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, and fully half say it’s unlikely that the country will eventually achieve racial equality.14

To further sway public opinion, in August 2019, The New York Times and The Washington Post each began initiatives of multiple articles on the history of slavery which argue that slavery has a current role in institutional racism and inequality—and recommend new curricula for Teaching Slavery in public schools.15

  

Overall Conclusions

The legacy of slavery (including reconstruction and segregation) has been addressed by the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society legislation and other national programs for more than sixty years. Those efforts remain incomplete but ongoing. Inadequate public knowledge about the role that slavery played in perpetuating disparities is not the problem.

In 1980, the liberal black sociologist William Julius Wilson argued in The Declining Significance of Race, that while slavery and Jim Crow played major initial roles in reinforcing racial disparities, slavery’s role does not “provide a meaningful explanation of the life chances of black Americans today.” Conservative black scholars like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell had previously made similar points.16 Wilson reissued the Third Edition of The Declining Significance of Race in 2012 and reiterates that “race is no longer the primary determinant of life chances for blacks (in the same way it had been historically).17

I would argue that the most significant contemporary challenges for black Americans are not due to institutional racism, but to the massive failures of the “progressive” federal social policies of the 1960’s, particularly the Great Society and the War on Poverty, which significantly exacerbated the very problems they were intended to ameliorate. These major debacles overlapped with the rapid dissolution of the black family’s internal cohesion documented in the vehemently denounced, but ultimately prescient, Moynihan report17 of 1965. And all of this of course mixed ominously with the “countercultural” movement of the 1960’s and the pathologies of victimology, dependency, and rebellion which it spawned.

By contrast, I continue to believe that the better guide for black as well as other Americans remains our founding ideals: the bourgeois ethic, individual responsibility, education, personal initiative, and family values. A hand up from civil society and government should be expected to overcome unfair obstacles to success in a free society. The democratic process remains the way to reform and eliminate such obstacles and improve equality for all people.

Howard Zinn’s progressive polemic, People’s History of the United States[19] swiftly and widely infested our education system during the 1980s and helped turn American history in public schooling into a saga of marginalized groups and oppression, which already undermines the founding ideals as well as our children’s knowledge. Considering the latest Pew survey, Teaching Hard History may well also appeal to today’s educators and would complete the view of America and its Constitution as failed ideals requiring extensive re-education reflecting contemporary notions of social justice.

A worthy objective of academic and public supporters of our founding ideals should be to assure that Teaching Hard History does not similarly gain a significant foothold in our public schools.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


1 Montpelier.org, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund., Engaging Descendent Communities in Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites: A Rubric of Best Practices Established by The National Summit on Teaching Slavery, 19 October 2019.

2 Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery, Teaching Tolerance, A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018.

3 Engaging Descendent Communities in Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, 1-2.

4 Kate Shuster, “Teaching Hard History,” Southern Poverty Law Center, January 31, 2018, Executive Summary.

5 Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “Teaching Hard History,” Preface.

6 Kate Shuster, “Teaching Hard History,” Executive Summary.

7 “Teaching Hard History,” Part IV., Conclusions and Recommendations.

8 Margaret Jordan, “Too many Americans still don’t see black history as their own,” The Washington Post, 30 June 2017.

9 Sophia A. Nelson, “’The Mere Distinction of Colour’: Montpelier Descendants Tell Their Story,” NBC News, 29 September 2017.

10 Nelson, “’The Mere Distinction of Colour’: Montpelier Descendants Tell Their Story,” 29 September 2017.

11 Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, “Race in America 2019,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/psdt_04-09-19_race-00-10/, 9 April 2019.

12 Horowitz, Brown, and Cox, “Race in America 2019,” Pew Research Center, 9 April 2019.

13 “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart,” Pew Research Center, 27 June 2016.

14 Horowitz, Brown, and Cox, “Race in America 2019,” Pew Research Center, 9 April 2019.

15 “The 1619 Project,” The New York Times Magazine, 13 August 2019. “The 1619 Project: Curricular Materials,” Pulitzer Center Education, 14 August 2019. Joe Helm, “Teaching America’s Truth,” The Washington Post, Education, 28 August 2019. Emily Guskin, Scott Clement, and Joe Helm, “Americans show spotty knowledge about the history of slavery but acknowledge its enduring effects,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2019.

16 Jason L. Riley, “The Race Card Has Gone Bust,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 July 2019 (quoting William Julius Wilson in The Declining Significance of Race (1978)).

17 William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). Third Edition, 187.

18 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org, 20 August 2019.

19 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015).

Image: By Creator: William Clark - This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website. Catalogue entry., CC0

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