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As you can see from my photo, I’m a white dude of “a certain age,” as we say in polite company.
Because of that, I am mystified by the hubbub over the Advanced Placement African American history course that has attracted the ire of Florida Gov. (and culture warrior) Ron DeSantis and prompted our own Gov. Glenn Youngkin to order a review of the curriculum.
Growing up in Virginia, I was taught no Black history whatsoever beyond the customary references to slavery. My seventh-grade history textbook also instructed us that Virginia’s enslaved population “was generally happy.”
I fancy myself a student of history but anything I’ve learned about Black history in Virginia is what I’ve learned on my own, no doubt haphazardly. Youngkin’s stock phrase is that “we can teach all of our history, the good, the bad, and Virginia’s children will be better for it,” so I will take him at his word — and even offer to help him out.
Ultimately, I will defer to actual historians but today I will share some of the history that we weren’t taught in school — but which happened anyway, and which still very much informs our present. Some of which falls under the heading of Black history, some of which doesn’t, but all of which, together, helps show that Virginians of my generation were taught a very incomplete — and sometimes inaccurate — version of our history.
That seventh-grade history textbook I had at Montevideo Intermediate School in Rockingham County in the 1970s was published in 1957, the product of a state commission that had been created because the state’s leaders in the 1950s (the segretationist Democrats of the Byrd Machine) were concerned that Virginians were getting some wrong-headed notions in their heads, mostly about civil rights. For the inglorious history of those history books, I refer to you the story that Rex Springston authored for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2018, in which he pointed out that authors at one point debated whether to call the Battle of Gettysburg a defeat for the Confederacy or a stalemate. They eventually went with defeat, however reluctantly, yet later in the book referred to Robert E. Lee as “undefeated.”
But let’s not dwell on the Civil War, or we’ll be here all day. Instead let’s look at what we were taught about Virginia between Appomattox and the book’s publication (although my recollection is that, while we were required to take Virginia history three times in school — in fourth grade, in seventh grade and again in high school, we never got past the Civil War, literally or figuratively).
I recently looked through that seventh-grade textbook (which Virginia’s first Republican governor, Linwood Holton, ordered replaced). After some obligatory (and generally negative) mentions of emancipated slaves during the sections on Reconstruction, Black Virginians are almost completely absent from the book except for brief references on two facing pages to Booker T. Washington and what we now know as Hampton University and Virginia State University. It’s as if, after slavery, Black Virginians simply disappeared from the Virginia story, at least the official version of history we were taught.
That means there’s a lot of Virginia history we weren’t told about.
We weren’t told that in 1869 a former enslaved man who had been elected to office in Charlotte County was murdered on the courthouse steps — and that his white assailants literally got away with murder. (One of them wound up working as a police officer in Roanoke later in the century; see the story we published about the historical marker erected in Charlotte County in 2021.)
We weren’t told the full truth about the Readjuster Party, a biracial party that briefly controlled Virginia government during the 1880s — after Reconstruction, mind you — and set Virginia on what was considered a progressive course for the time. We weren’t told that the Readjusters opened Black schools, for instance. We weren’t told that during this time Danville elected a Black majority town council and hired an integrated police force.
We were told that the Readjusters spread rumors that if the other side — the Funders — were elected, Black schools would be closed, with the implication that these were lies. We weren’t told, though, that some Funders would have closed all the schools, Black and white. We weren’t told that opening public schools was a requirement for Virginia’s readmission into the Union; Northerners believed that one reason for the Civil War was that too many Southerners, Black and white, were uneducated, which led those uneducated whites to blindly follow the plantation masters into civil war. The question of how to pay for those schools occupied a lot of political energy, though. The Funders wanted to fully pay off the state’s pre-war debt, which would have left little money left to pay for the required public school system. The Readjusters wanted to readjust the state’s debt, and championed public schools. One of the leading funders was John Daniel of Lynchburg who declared that it “were better to burn the schools … than sustain them on money taken by force” from bondholders.
We weren’t told to use our critical thinking to ponder what might have happened had the Readjusters managed to stay in power. Nor were we told that, after a climactic campaign in 1885 in which Democrat FitzHugh Lee narrowly defeated Republican John Wise (by then the Readjusters had evolved into Republicans), Virginia effectively became a one-party state and that one party set about imposing what we know now as Jim Crow.
We weren’t told that despite these obstacles, voters in Southside Virginia in 1888 elected the state’s first Black congressman, John Mercer Langston. This was 18 years after the end of Reconstruction, so not the result of carpetbaggers imposing their will on a helpless Virginia, as our histories usually described the Reconstruction era. We weren’t told about the horrible lynchings that also marked that period of Virginia history. In fact, that word never appears in the textbook, as if those things never happened.
We were told that Carter Glass of Lynchburg “was one of Virginia’s outstanding statesmen” and that in 1902 Virginia decided it needed a new constitution “to correct certain undesirable parts” of its Reconstruction-era constitution. We weren’t told, though, the true purpose of that convention: “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose,” Glass proclaimed. We were told in school that the 1902 constitution refused the vote to those people “who were not well enough educated to make good citizens” and that “under the same constitution, plans were made to provide education which would prepare those people to vote.” We weren’t told that the specific intent was to disenfranchise as many Black voters as possible (along with a lot of white voters in rural areas who couldn’t pass the literacy tests). We weren’t told that as a result the number of voters in Virginia was cut nearly in half — or who those disenfranchised voters were. They were primarily Black Virginans and whites in Southwest Virginia, which occasionally had the temerity of voting Republican.
We were told that Gov. John Battle in the early 1950s “will probably be remembered longest for the Battle School Construction Fund, by which money was lent to counties and cities to build the many new schools needed to house the ever increasing number of students.” That’s true, but we weren’t told that Battle was forced into this by Francis Pickens Miller, a primary challenger who made school construction funding his main issue.
That textbook came out in 1957, during Massive Resistance, so we certainly weren’t told anything about that — or civil rights generally. We weren’t told about Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old Prince Edward County student who led a walkout from her segregated school, an action that led to a lawsuit from Prince Edward being one of five suits that were combined under the heading we know them by today, Brown v. Board of Education. We certainly weren’t told about the two Black lawyers from Richmond who patiently chipped away at the legal foundations of segregation — Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson.
And since we weren’t told about any Black Virginians in the 20th century other than Booker T. Washington, we weren’t told about so many other Black Virginians who accomplished great things. We weren’t told how Roger Arliner Young, who was born in Clifton Forge, became the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in zoology — or how her scientific career was sidelined by her political activism. We weren’t told about Norvel Lee, who grew up in Botetourt County and earned a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics in dramatic fashion, and then turned down a lucrative pro boxing career to become an educator. We weren’t told about lots of people, Virginians who might otherwise have merited recognition except for the color of their skin.
This accounting runs through the textbook’s publication in 1957, but there is certainly history since then that any student of Virginia history ought to know. We ought to know about Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, the Black Lynchburg doctor and tennis coach who helped launch the careers of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. We ought to know how the civil rights era unfolded in the state, how Danville descended into what history remembers as Bloody Monday, while in Roanoke, a secret biracial committee of business and civic leaders quietly orchestrated the peaceful integration of lunch counters. We ought to know how Black leaders in Roanoke persuaded Black players for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts to refuse to play before a segregated crowd at a preseason game at Victory Stadium in 1961, an action that led to the NFL refusing to play before any segregated crowd. We ought to know about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the three Black mathematicians who worked as human computers for NASA in its early days. We ought to know about Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her permission and became instrumental in many medical discoveries. We ought to know that the first integrated Little League baseball team in the South was in Norton.
We ought to know about a lot of other people whose names and deeds I probably haven’t learned yet, but without whom our understanding of history is woefully incomplete and whose omission from this list is purely one of my own ignorance.
We are slowly and fitfully filling in some of the gaps of our understanding. Author Margot Lee Shetterly educated us about those NASA mathematicians in her book “Hidden Figures,” later turned into a movie of the same time. Author Margaret Edds has written about the two pioneering lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, who brought down segregation. Author Ken Conklin introduced me, and others, to Olympic boxer Norvel Lee, and now there’s a historical marker to him along U.S. 220 in Botetourt County. Author Rebecca Skloot informed the world about Henrietta Lacks and now there are statues to her planned in Roanoke (where she was born) and South Boston (near where she lived and is buried).
I have no idea what’s in this AP African American history course beyond what I’ve read in news coverage. But my advice to Youngkin is that if the names and events I’ve just mentioned aren’t being taught in Virginia schools, then we’re not really teaching a full version of Virginia history.