The saga continues as we work our way through decades-old Alabama history books. It’s an illuminating journey that explains some of the deep-seated attitudes among many people in Alabama. The idea that “slavery was an early form of Social Security,” and that slavery was not a main cause of the Civil War seems, well, odd today.
Yet many, many people were learning this in Alabama public schools as recently as the early 1970’s.
The 1961 textbook, Alabama History for Schools depicts slavery in Alabama as a system that really wasn’t so bad – at least for the most part because cruel laws regarding education, property ownership, etc. were on the books, but not always enforced.
For instance, we learn on page 233 (PDF copy here) that “one of the least favorable sides of slavery is seen when we study the formal education of the Negro. It was against the law in slavery time to teach slaves to read and write.” But then, we find out that many slaves received an education from their white playmates, religious training, or through the generosity of their masters:
Certain masters helped their slaves in other ways to receive schooling. Samuel Townsend of Huntsville emancipated a number of Negro slave children in his will and left an estate to provide for the education. Townsend knew that they could not enter any schools in Alabama, so he provided that they be sent to school in the North.
And how bad – really – could slavery have been if free Negroes themselves owned slaves?
From page 235 (see PDF):
In Mobile and other Alabama towns, free Negroes found work as carpenters, bricklayers, painters, […] Barbering was one of the most highly regarded of the occupations of free Negroes. Free Negroes had a society of their own hand had a good time in each others’ company. Did you know that some free Negroes themselves owned slaves?
Now, I also have a book titled Alabama Past and Future, published in 1941 and written by Howard Odum, Gladstone Yeuell, and Charles Summersell (who also wrote Alabama History for Schools). Reading the two books, I noticed that the content of many sections of 1961’s Alabama History for Schools were very similar to the 1941 history book. In some cases, whole paragraphs are repeated verbatim.
Curious, I checked to see what the 1941 edition had to say about free Negroes – and found nothing. That was an addition to the 1961 edition. The 1941 book also mentions state’s rights just once in passing and in conjunction with Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. In contrast, the 1961 edition features the phrase prominently (and capitalizes it in the text!) and discusses the concept at length during the “Causes of the Civil War” section.
The difference between the two texts is startling in other ways too. The 1941 text is relatively forward-looking and talks a lot about the great future the state has before it. But by 1961, it seems like the citizenry was digging in to defend the past and hang on to it as long as possible.
In Part 3, we’ll look at the causes of the Civil War and how the rationale changed in these two Alabama history textbooks in the brief 20-year span between 1941 and 1961.