Virginia’s textbook ordeal: thinking beyond “Black Confederates”

Posted on November 17, 2010 by


Not long after the controversy over Virginia’s 4th grade history text began, like a number of others, I gave some thoughts about the mention of “Black Confederates” as well, but didn’t go beyond the single post. Yet, in the weeks that followed, I began to think more of what this means. Let’s focus specifically on the subject of telling the story of Virginians in the Civil War. Many of us have been critical of the mention of “Black Confederates”, but are we forgetting other questions that may actually be equally, if not more important?

I don’t have a copy of the textbook, nor have I had an opportunity to look it over, so I’ve got a number of questions.

Since “Black Confederates” are mentioned, I’m wondering if, well… let me back up a bit.

This is a textbook developed for Virginia schools. It IS a Virginia-centric textbook. As one who is very interested in usability studies, I can’t help but think that it was (as it should be) developed for the audience… for 4th graders. So, what is it, exactly, that 4th graders should know about the Civil War… about Virginians in the Civil War? To what concepts should 4th graders (age 9-10) be exposed? What should they know at this point, and what is more than what they need to know for now.  What can they handle, what can they successfully digest mentally… and what can they not? Additionally.. and I don’t think this is given ample consideration… what grabs the attention of the child to become and/or remain interested in history?

O.k., so, back to what I was saying… since “Black Confederates” were mentioned, I wonder…

…are Virginia’s Southern Unionists mentioned? If we have such a great grasp on “Black Confederates” (I’m being sarcastic, of course), then why not mention people that we can actually begin to put numbers on. The concept of “Black Confederates” lives, primarily because of quotes. We’ve got more than just quotes for Virginia’s Southern Unionists. At this point, should children also learn about the stories of people like “Crazy Bet” and John Minor Botts, and that not all Virginians jumped into the secession pool?

… is there any mention of free blacks being forced into serving in labor pools in building defensive works around Richmond? After all, unlike “Black Confederates”, we’ve got materials that can show us… even testimony from those who were forced to serve… that free blacks of Virginia were forced, sometimes under the threat of death, to work in these labor pools. Yet, do we have such testimony from as many “Black Confederates”? If children are taught about blacks who supposedly freely supported the Confederacy, should they also know about those free blacks who were forced to serve as well?

… is there any mention of intolerance for war among some Virginians, based on religion? After all, we have documentation of Brethren and Mennonite peoples and their refusal to be subject to Confederate Conscription. In fact, as far as dissension for the “Cause” and secession goes… there were all sorts of reasons why people didn’t want to support Virginia in the new Confederacy… just as much as there were people in Virginia who did support the Old Dominion in the Confederacy.

These are just a few things to consider. These are “hot-spots” on my “radar” of Virginia history, so perhaps I’m a little biased in what I think should be included. Yet, am I really biased? After all, if the story of “Black Confederates” is going to get some “play-time” in the textbooks, then I think it is at least equally important to expand beyond this one subject, and start including a great deal more. Of course, this makes it clear at an early point, that history is complex. Or does it simply confuse children?

Thus, we get back to what 4th graders should know about Virginia in the Civil War. What is too complex? What is important for them to know, and what is best reserved for a later point in their education? After we begin to ask questions like this, we should also ask “why”. Why are these things important, and why should they be important at that point in time in their education? Additionally, what is it exactly, that makes us think that this is the point in time where this information should be revealed? Are these texts, as developed, really considering cognitive factors or are they simply supposed to be doing that?

In addition to being critical of the mention of “Black Confederates” in the textbooks, I think we should also begin to look at the broader story of our people – Virginians – in history. I don’t think it ends there. I think it even requires greater scrutiny of Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs). How were these developed and who was it, exactly, that said that this is what children should learn… and when they should learn it?

Yes, it’s a good thing that this has come to our attention… but I don’t think we’re asking all the right questions, and I’m beginning to think we are too focused on one question alone. I say this as a Virginia historian… and as a father of grade schoolers… and one of them being in the 4th grade.