Opinion

Historians deserve a 'D' in teaching southern history -- Frank Hyman

“Only half of the country sees slavery as the root of the war?” writes Frank Hyman. “That doesn't sound like a passing grade for the history profession.”
“Only half of the country sees slavery as the root of the war?” writes Frank Hyman. “That doesn't sound like a passing grade for the history profession.”

Given all the debates about flags, memorials and white supremacy, does it sometimes feel like we’re still fighting the Civil War?

As Edmund Burke said (long before Santayana), “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” A corollary: those who teach history poorly condemn our nation to repeat it.

Historians recently concluded a four-year long exploration of the Civil War called the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Between that and required history classes you might be surprised to learn that the country — North and South — is roughly split on whether the Civil War was fought over slavery or states’ rights.

Only half of the country sees slavery as the root of the war? That doesn't sound like a passing grade for the history profession.

While historians at all levels have fixated on glorious battles and battling generals, they ignore the Articles of Secession; most Confederate states explicitly say they seceded to defend slavery. Are these concise, primary documents not making it into classrooms?

Why aren’t students learning that North Carolina voters (white males over 21 in those days) opposed secession? The slave-owners in the General Assembly overruled them and launched us into a war not wholly supported by most Tarheels.

Our historians have left most citizens with two other false impressions.

First, the image of African-Americans as mere victims of slavery and second, of the only heritage for white southerners as racist defenders of the Confederacy.

I was fortunate to meet history professor John Hope Franklin (I had sought out a tour of his orchid greenhouse). His books shattered the image of African-Americas as passive players in the south; enslaved Southern blacks helped form their own fate by escaping bondage and sabotaging their concentration camps, better known as plantations. Why aren’t these stories being told?

Most Americans also have no idea that Southerners — white and black — composed a quarter of the Union Army. Nearly 200,000 former slaves, 100,000 whites from Confederate States and 200,000 more whites from southern slave states that did not secede (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware) fought for freedom.

In addition, many white Southerners were Unionists who liberated entire counties, as shown in the movie “Free State of Jones.” Why is this movie, or the book on which it’s based, not showing up in classrooms?

Here in North Carolina tens of thousands belonged to underground organizations such as the Heroes of America, colloquially known as the “Red Strings.” They helped runaway slaves, Confederate Army deserters and fought battles with the Home Guard.

Historians rarely teach that there was in fact a civil war within the Civil War in the South. We can knock down memorials — Jefferson Davis Highway markers anyone? — but when they’re gone, institutions of white supremacy will still stand tall.

On the larger issue of white supremacy too few learn the truth about the origins of the worst monument from slavery days: the Electoral College (EC) that put Trump in the White House. If the EC did not exist, white supremacists would want to invent it.

Wait a minute: They did invent it! For example, historians let the canard live on that the EC was simply created to benefit smaller states. They turn a blind eye to the fact that some of those states allowed slavery and wanted their nearly one million enslaved, non-voting blacks to count toward their delegates in the EC. In fact without the 19 votes in the EC that "represented" enslaved blacks, the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to the abolitionist and incumbent John Adams.

The franchise has expanded, but the Electoral College is perhaps still the most powerful single institution of white supremacy. After all it is directly responsible for putting slave-owners in the White House, prematurely ending Reconstruction, gutting the Voting Rights Act and almost anything the Trump administration is doing or Tweeting.

With a proper understanding of the EC’s historic role in white supremacy (with some help from historians perhaps?), citizens can de-fang it before 2020 when a few more states join the Interstate Compact (www.nationalpopularvote.com). One day perhaps, the Civil War will really be behind us. But can democracy succeed when so few know our history and when so few historians do a good job of teaching it?

Frank Hyman has held two local elected offices in Durham. His essays and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times and more than a dozen newspapers in the South. Find links to these essays at www.bluecollarcomeback.com.

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