Reconstructing the Past

African Americans’ struggle for inclusion in American history.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

A largely unrecognized part of the civil rights movement related to how African Americans were portrayed in American history textbooks. In the late 1960s, some educators led an effort to persuade publishers of American history textbooks to revise the material in their books to more accurately recognize the important role that African Americans played in the nation’s history.

Mentioning that African Americans took part in the American Revolution would be a good start, William Brazziel, director of general education at Virginia State College, thought, as this was something many students (and adults) simply did not know. More generally, identifying African Americans as such itself had racial connotations, he believed. George Washington certainly was not identified as an “English American,” so why did African Americans have to be labeled by their racial background? Mentioning that certain African Americans were “a credit to his race,” as writers of textbooks were apt to do, was also derogatory and patronizing. Whites were never said to be credits to their own race, after all, and the assumption could be made that most African Americans were not credits to their race if a few were singled out as such.

As well, reserving Negro History Week (February 8-14) as the sole occasion to discuss African American history, as a good number of teachers did, was a bad practice that would hopefully go away in this new era of race relations in the United States. (That week was chosen because Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was February 12, and Frederick Douglass was born on  February 14.)  Finally, having two curricula—one “urban” and one “suburban”—was misguided, Brazziel felt, because such a policy (which some school districts were considering) was likely to advance segregation rather than end it.

Some students also recognized that they were not being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth regarding African Americans in American history. One of them, Stanley Axelrod, a history major at SUNY Albany, related his thoughts on the matter in a 1966 essay in the Negro History Bulletin. “Many history textbooks either distort or omit important information on the history and achievement of Negroes,” he plainly wrote, suggesting that education reform dovetailed nicely with African Americans’ demand for equal rights.

Besides being left out of American history textbooks, African Americans were treated in a condescending and over-simplified manner, Axelrod felt, with a single sentence often summarizing a particular person’s lifetime achievements. (Indeed, Joe DiMaggio got more coverage than George Washington Carver in one popular high school textbook, This is America’s Story.) African Americans helped discover America, fought bravely in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and were elected as politicians, Axelrod reminded readers, with many opportunities for publishers to more fully and fairly mention these accomplishments in textbooks.

The negative ways in which African Americans were portrayed in history textbooks of the late 1960s could be traced back to the Civil War. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century textbooks varied greatly depending on whether the writer was sympathetic to the northern or southern cause; the stories of slavery and Reconstruction could be told much differently. This regional bias had not entirely disappeared by the late 1960s, and there was no doubt that textbook publishers still viewed the northern and southern markets quite differently.

In their 1968 analysis of African Americans in American history textbooks used in California, a group of Berkeley professors was discouraged by what they found. African Americans with non-confrontational views about racial discrimination, e.g., Carver and Booker T. Washington, tended to be featured prominently in books, while those promoting some kind of activism, e.g., Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, were not, and this was hardly a coincidence.

The biggest problem regarding African Americans in American history textbooks used in California classrooms, however, was that they were difficult to find; relatively few blacks populated the books and matters of race were given little attention. Students could very well conclude that race in America was an example of democracy in action, precisely opposite of what was true. In general, the less said the better about the problematic issue of race seemed to be the rule among publishers, the group determined, a clear attempt to avoid controversy. The horrors of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction, segregation and lynchings, and conflict associated with the civil rights movement all needed to be included in textbooks, the group urged California educators, concluding that the role of African Americans in American life was not being taught fully or accurately.

A couple of years later, Mervyn Dymally, a state senator, offered his thoughts on what he called African Americans’ “struggle for inclusion” in textbooks used in California.  In a speech to the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Dymally told his story of how he became a prominent spokesperson for making American history textbooks more inclusive. As a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles in 1959, Dymally was dismayed to see just two African Americans listed in one of the texts used, Great Names in American History. Surely there were more than two African American “great names” in the nation’s past than Washington and Carver, he thought.

Embarking on a career in politics after the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in, Dymally made textbook reform a personal passion, and in 1965 convinced his colleagues in the state assembly to pass a bill mandating that African Americans be portrayed accurately in books used in California classrooms. One such book, Land of the Free, was soon approved, but in 1970 Dymally felt there was much work still to be done. “It is your challenge to reconstruct the past,” he told the group, as the full story of the African American experience was yet to be included in American history textbooks.