Where does it come from, the ignorance that has been on display of late? In the college-age photos of white men, now elected officials, in blackface? In the simulated Klan lynchings for yearbook laughs? In mischaracterizations of black slaves as "indentured servants?" In the denials that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War?
One answer is: from the 69,706,756.
That's how many students were enrolled in the South's public elementary and secondary schools between 1889, when the government began counting students, and 1969, the height of the segregationist Jim Crow era, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. There they were subjected to the alternative reality of the Lost Cause, a false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery's central role in the Civil War, promotes the Confederacy's aim as a heroic one, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and portrays the white South as the victim.
The poisonous Lost Cause lessons were taught to multiple generations of Southerners to uphold institutionalized white supremacy — in part through public school curriculums shaped by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). More famous these days for their controversial Confederate monuments, the UDC had an almost singular focus on making sure the Lost Cause propaganda was so ingrained in the minds of Southern youth that it would be perpetual. Their most effective tool? School textbooks.
The constitution of the UDC's North Carolina Division, for example, said the group aimed to insure that "the portion of American history relating to [the Civil War] shall be properly taught in the public schools of the State, and to use its influence towards this object in all private schools." That barebones concept was given flesh by Division President Mrs. I.W. Faison, at the group's annual convention in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1909:
We must see that the correct history is taught our children and train them, not in hatred towards the North who differed from us, but in knowledge of true history of the South in the war between the States and the causes that led up to the war, so that they will be able to state facts and prove that they are right in the principles for which their fathers fought and died; and continue to preserve and defend their cause, until the whole civilized world will come to know that our cause was just and right. … There is an expression often used by our people as the "Lost Cause." Let us forget such, for it is not the truth. …No, our cause was not lost because it was not wrong.
A few years earlier, national UDC President Mrs. James A. Rounsaville put it this way at the group's annual convention in Charleston, South Carolina:
It has ever been the cherished purpose of the Daughters of the Confederacy to secure greater educational opportunities for Confederate children, and by thorough training of their powers of mind, heart and hand, render it possible for these representatives of our Southern race to retain for that race its supremacy in its own land.
The UDC's propaganda campaign utilized other tools to be sure. In 1932 alone, the North Carolina Division placed 183 portraits of Confederate figures in the state's public schools, along with 206 Confederate flags. The following year, it was 865 flags. The UDC, with schools' permission, also conducted essay contests on topics like "The Origin of the Ku Klux Klan" and "The Right of Secession." Submissions were routinely in the thousands.
But the UDC's primary focus was on insuring that Southern schools used only those history books loyal to the Lost Cause.
The Rutherford Committee
At its annual reunion in Atlanta in 1919, the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) set up a committee to promulgate the Lost Cause version of history through textbooks. It brought together the most prominent Confederate heritage associations — UCV, UDC, and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Each appointed five members. It came to be known as the Rutherford Committee after its most prominent member, Mildred Lewis Rutherford.
An officer in the national UDC for years, Rutherford served as the group's historian from 1911 to 1916. Her decades of popular, pro-Confederate writing brought her to national prominence, and she was also well known for serving up speeches that emphasized the victimization of the white South by the North, defended slavery, and praised the Ku Klux Klan.
Another prominent member of the committee was Julian S. Carr, the former Confederate general and North Carolina industrialist. He's now infamous for his 1913 speech at the dedication of the UDC's "Silent Sam" Confederate veterans monument formerly on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in which he urged support for white supremacy and called it a "pleasing duty" to horsewhip a "Negro wench" for allegedly publicly insulting a "Southern lady."
The man who served as the committee's chair for a number of years was C. Irvine Walker of South Carolina, also a former Confederate general. He was known for spearheading the reopening of the Citadel, the South's premier military academy, which was closed after the Civil War. "During the days of Negro domination in South Carolina, I knew it would be hopeless to attempt the resuscitation," he wrote in the "Memorandum of Gen. C. Irvine Walker of His Work Concerning the Reopening of the Citadel," now housed in the school's archives. "But when the state was returned to the control of its own citizens, the white people of South Carolina, I felt that the time had come to move, and I started the movement, which ended in success."
Irvine was also a leader in the Carolina Rifle Club, a group that offered itself as an alternative to the Ku Klux Klan, which Irvine had joined but personally found "too cumbersome and liable to be abused," as he wrote in his 1869 book titled after the club itself. The purpose of the Rifle Club, he said, was to combat "the greatest social crime of all the ages — the sudden emancipation of four million of African slaves wholly incapable of freedom." According to Irvine:
That the South was partially saved from the terrible results which were to be expected from this sudden emancipation of four millions of negro slaves, her people are and ever will be indebted, first, to the civilizing and humanizing influences of the institution of negro slavery as it had existed in the Southern States from the days of the Colonies down to 1865, second, to the innate superiority and naturally dominating power of the white race, third, in the absence of the quality of savage ferocity in the negro race in the South, induced by generations of humane training by his white masters and mistresses, and to the kindness and loyalty felt and manifested by the former slave to his white friends in the South and, mainly, to the courage and endurance of Southern white women and the manliness and patience of Southern white men.
These were the people who would guide history education for generations of Southerners.
Setting UDC standards
In 1919, the Rutherford Committee published the 23-page pamphlet "A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries." Written by Mildred Lewis Rutherford herself, it was the committee's set of standards for what was acceptable in a history textbook — the Lost Cause mythology distilled into accessible bullet points and blurbs, backed by cherry-picked quotes from professors, politicians, newspapers, and period speeches.
The national UDC immediately embraced "Measuring Rod," as did the state divisions. The UDC now had not only a simple set of rules for textbooks but also a distillation of Lost Cause ideology in a format easy for the general public to digest.
In 1920, Rutherford followed "The Measuring Rod" with a 114-page book titled "Truths of History," in which she expanded the content of "The Measuring Rod" by adding more perceived wrongs levied upon the South by the North. This time, though, she specifically called out textbooks that offended the UDC by name. It was a blacklist, and it had an immediate effect as state divisions launched campaigns to ban books.
The book banning effort built on the earlier work pioneered by Daughters like Mrs. Helen De Berniere Wills, the longtime chair of the North Carolina Division's textbook committee. De Berniere Wills had pushed local her local UDC chapters to aggressively engage their local schools systems and promote the books they liked and fight those they didn't.
By 1905, at the annual North Carolina Division convention, De Berniere Wills announced that local school superintendents across the state had assured her that no textbooks offensive to the UDC were being used. School systems in Asheville, Charlotte, Mooresville, and Statesville, as well as Alamance, Cumberland, Orange, and Pender counties, had gone about "purifying the schools from objectionable books," she said.
De Berniere Wills also announced that J.Y. Joyner, the state superintendent of public instruction, wrote to her assuring his support of her efforts to purge textbooks that were offensive to the UDC, and that Dr. Alexander Graham, Charlotte's superintendent of schools, promised that his teachers would "correct orally, errors that are to be found in many text-books, such as do injustice to the South."
By 1906, North Carolina had a newly created state textbook commission which largely took selection away from local boards. The UDC now needed to lobby only one governmental agency to carry out its propaganda mission.
Using its considerable political clout, the North Carolina Division also secured Gov. Robert B. Glenn's assurances that he would appoint only Lost Cause loyalists to the new textbook commission. By 1916, the Division itself was reviewing history textbooks and sending their written reviews, approvals, and rejections directly to the state textbook commission.
North Carolina was hardly alone: This was business as usual in the Southern states when it came to public schools choosing history textbooks. For example, both Mississippi and Texas actively partnered with the UDC and UCV to choose textbooks.
And, it was not unusual for UDC members to actually be appointed to the state textbook commissions. The UDC divisions in North Carolina and Texas both had members appointed to their respective state textbook commissions at various times. Many state commissions also allowed UDC members to attend their deliberative meetings to promote or criticize books.
The bottom line for national book publishers was they had decisions to make if they wanted to sell books to Southern schools. Go all in with Lost Cause dogma and be able to sell the book only in the South? Or have two versions of the same book — one with carefully worded, watered-down history for the South, and another one with historical facts for everyone else? The latter was often the choice. This also meant that books covering only state history tended to have a local author, a local publisher — and a stronger Lost Cause bias.
The indentured vs. the enslaved
In 1923, at its annual convention in Greensboro, the UDC's North Carolina Division endorsed for use as a school textbook "Young People's History of North Carolina" by Daniel Harvey Hill Jr. First published in 1907, it had been in use in North Carolina since 1911 and would continue to be used until well after 1940.
The author, the son of a famous Confederate general, attended Davidson College near Charlotte and eventually obtained his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. After teaching in Georgia, he returned to Raleigh to take a position at the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now North Carolina State University. In 1908, Hill became the school's third president. Its main library, D.H. Hill Library, is named after him.
Hill's textbook cast the conflict over slavery as the North's fault, blaming the "pushing zeal" of Northern abolitionists for "keeping the nation stirred to its depths" and leading many Southerners to "feeling that the Constitution was being violated" and "declaring the need of withdrawal from the Union." It also portrayed President Lincoln as a villain whose inaugural speech was a declaration of war on the South.
Hill also described the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in almost mystical terms. In this passage, Hill refers to the Loyal Leagues, also known as Union Leagues, secretive men's clubs established during the Civil War to promote fealty to the Union and Lincoln:
All at once, in many counties negroes and their white leaders on their way home from League meetings were startled and terrified by meeting strange processions of wild-looking beings in the shadows of the road. Sometimes these frightful-looking objects would pass as silently as the midnight. Not a sound of horses' feet, not the ghost of a whisper would be heard. … As soon as these strange horsemen began to be seen in a neighborhood, the dens of the Loyal Leagues closed in a hurry. The negroes did not care to meet the white riders twice. … At first the clubs were controlled by the best men in the South and used only as a means of keeping order. Of course, this was not a lawful way of putting down wrong, but it was at the time the only way open to the suffering people.
In describing the conditions faced by enslaved people, Hill's textbook clung to the Lost Cause line that they were well treated and better off in slavery:
As a rule the slaves were comfortably clothed, given an abundance of wholesome food, and kindly treated. Occasionally some hard-hearted master or bad-tempered mistress made the lot of their slaves a hard one, but such cases were not common. Cruel masters and cruel mistresses were scorned then just as men and women who treat animals cruelly are now scorned. These slaves were brought into the colonies fresh from a savage life in Africa and in two or three generations were changed into respectable men and women. This fact shows, better than any words can, how prudently and how wisely they were managed.
In discussing slavery, Hill intermingled discussion of white indentured servants in the colonial South with enslaved blacks — a common tactic in textbooks endorsed by the UDC. The point was to minimize the immorality of slavery by equating the enslaved with those working off a debt, very often the debt of Atlantic passage. Indentured servants often apprenticed to tradesmen, allowing them to gain a marketable skill with which to make a living once the debt was paid. Though it was not without problems, indentured servitude was not the same thing as chattel slavery, but conflating the two was a common Lost Cause red herring.
A much more aggressive equivalency between indentured servitude and slavery was drawn in another UDC textbook favorite, "The History of the United States" by Waddy Thompson, a plantation owner, South Carolina legislator and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Used for years throughout the South and endorsed by the national UDC, Thompson's textbook intentionally mischaracterized indentured servants as "white slaves" and described enslaved black people as being exceptionally well-treated, perfectly happy, and loyal to their masters.
"The History of the United States" also defended secession as a response to the North violating Southerners' constitutional rights (to own slaves) and justified the Ku Klux Klan as the protector of the white race during Reconstruction. Thompson recounted largely imagined Northern economic and political victimization of the South, both before and after the war, on everything from tariffs to trade — another classic Lost Cause trope.
Racist caricature as classroom poetry
Besides textbooks, the United Daughters of the Confederacy also made recommendations for supplementary readers to be used in the South's schools. Consider the one endorsed by the UDC in 1914.
"De Namin' ob de Twins, and Other Sketches From the Cotton Land" is a book written in 1908 by Mary Fairfax Childs, who was born in 1870 in Lexington, Kentucky, and later lived in Virginia. It was one of a slew of "black dialect" works of the time; considered a form of poetry, they used exaggerated phonetic spelling to caricature black speech and portrayed black people as comically foolish, childlike buffoons utterly dependent on whites for survival.
Childs herself was a UDC member and an officer in her own state's division, and she dedicated "Twins" to the UDC itself. The story, which intends to be humorous, revolves around an enslaved grandmother choosing names for her dead daughter's twin babies, who it refers to as "little darkies." In the preface Childs wrote, "The very fact that negroes made no attempt toward being humorous rendered them, as a race, irresistibly so."
In stating its approval of the book in 1914, the UDC's Committee on Endorsement of Books gushed:
It would be impossible to enumerate all, but one other author must be mentioned, one, who like Irwin Russell, sings of the humble folk, of those who helped make the Old South what it was, of the faithful servers who stood behind our grandmothers' chairs and with picturesque and stately turkey feathers wooed the cooling breezes on a feverish summer day, who sat at their footstools and placed the slippers on their slender little feet, and who sang and danced for the amusement of the home circle. Of those who waited upon the sick, comforted the suffering, and who, at the last, helped shut out the world and all its shadows with the snowy winding sheet. The poet is Mary Fairfax Childs, a Kentuckian by birth, a Virginian by inheritance. Her book, dedicated to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is, "De Namin' ob de Twins," published by B. W. Dodge & Co., New York. Its pathos is irresistible, its humor contagious, its literary quality fine.
In 1917, "Twins" was endorsed again for schools, this time by Mrs. S.E.F. Rose, the UDC's historian general. Rose was famous for her own book, a supplementary reader published in 1913 titled "The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire." It was a glowing, pseudo-historical white supremacist tribute to the Reconstruction KKK, and both Rose and the national UDC recommended its use in schools. "The Ku Klux Klan" was first adopted by the school system in West Point, Mississippi, in 1915 and was pushed on schools in other states like Texas. The book was endorsed for use in schools by the UDC, UCV, and SCV.
One commonality in all the UDC-endorsed books was that they were written by white Southerners. The UDC not only railed against books slanted to what it called "the Northern view" of history, they routinely rejected books written by Northerners or anyone educated in the North, no matter how well qualified the author. The anti-Northern bias was so extreme that some prominent members of the UDC, including Mildred Lewis Rutherford herself, actually wanted to ban Northerners from teaching in Southern schools or from serving on Southern school boards.
Embracing a murderer
Some materials the UDC introduced into public schools came from minds twisted by other pathologies in addition to white supremacy.
Oscar W. Blacknall was the son of a well-known Confederate officer who died during the Civil War. A native of the town of Kittrell in Vance County, along North Carolina's border with Virginia, Blacknall owned one of the South's largest plant nurseries, which specialized in strawberries. He was also an amateur historian who focused on the Civil War. His wife and daughter were both active in the UDC. In fact, his wife (and his double first cousin), Carrie Thomas Blacknall, had been an officer in the state division and served as the local chapter's president. Their daughter Kate, one of seven children, had served as its secretary.
Like many white Southerners during Jim Crow, Blacknall was a publicly avowed white supremacist. For example, in the Sept. 6, 1903 edition of Raleigh's News and Observer — a newspaper that at the time was outspokenly white supremacist — Blacknall authored a rambling column titled "Transportation of Negroes Impossible and Chimerical." In it, he said the nature of blacks was to sink to the lowest of criminal and immoral behavior. He warned against racial mixing, that "the infusion of negro blood will be large enough to mongrelize the American stock to its everlasting harm." After asserting the racial superiority of whites, he advocated rounding up black people and shipping them to a foreign land.
But Blacknall's masterwork was "Lincoln as the South Should Know Him," published in 1915. Fewer than 20 pages, it was basically a pamphlet. Light on history and bloated with swirling hyperbole, it is at once a diatribe against Sherman's March, a defense of Southern secession, and an attack on Lincoln. At its core, it is an espousal of white supremacy.
For example, after comparing Lincoln to Satan and Napoleon, Blacknall declared the Emancipation Proclamation a meaningless political stunt because the slaves stayed on their plantations and didn't run away. But ultimately it was Lincoln, he wrote, who "unleashed four million savages … in our very midst, against our defenseless women and children." Blacknall then continued his theme of casting blacks as inherently immoral and criminal and heralded the white Southerner as "the purest blooded branch of the sane and virile Anglo-Saxon race."
The North Carolina Division was thrilled. At its 1917 convention held in Kinston, the Manly's Battery Chapter — a Raleigh unit of the Children of the Confederacy, a UDC youth auxiliary group for children under 18 — announced that it had printed 500 copies of Blacknall's pamphlet and distributed them across 20 states.
Then in July 1918, Blacknall murdered his wife and his daughter Kate, then 25, before killing himself. The murder-suicide was described by The Cleveland Star newspaper of Shelby, North Carolina:
The triple tragedy occurred just after the noonday meal. Mrs. Blacknall was shot as she was leaving this dining room, the daughter just before she could reach the rear steps to the home, and the father fired a bullet into his own brain, standing between the bodies of his dying wife and daughter.
The paper notes that friends and associates attributed the killings to insanity, saying Blacknall had been under business and financial pressure.
Rather than dropping the publication of a man who had just murdered two of its own leaders, the North Carolina Division's printing and distribution of Blacknall's pamphlet increased exponentially. Between 1920 and 1923, the Division and Manly's Battery went on to print 1,545 copies of "Lincoln" for distribution in public schools and libraries.
Nor did the killings faze Mildred Lewis Rutherford. She went on to endorse Blacknall's pamphlet in her first volume of "Miss Rutherford's Scrapbook," published in 1923.
Confederate heritage groups still embrace Blacknall today. In fact, the SCV still sells "Lincoln as the South Should Know Him" on its website for $7.99, plus shipping and handling.
Banning books, targeting teachers
What did the UDC do when a Southern school system adopted a textbook they hated? They got it banned. Consider the Muzzey affair.
David S. Muzzey was a nationally known history professor. Educated at Harvard University, Union Theological Seminary, and the Sorbonne in Paris, he wrote a number of successful textbooks in his career. But it was his "American History," published in 1911, that drew the UDC's wrath.
The UDC targeted "American History" as early as 1916 at their annual convention in Dallas, when it landed on a list of history books deemed unacceptable by the group's Endorsement of Books Committee. But ultimately it was Mildred Lewis Rutherford's condemnation of Muzzey's book in her "Truths of History" that sparked an explosive controversy.
"American History" ran afoul of every rule Rutherford had laid out to further the Lost Cause narrative. Muzzey's book presented Lincoln in positive terms and Jefferson Davis negatively, named slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and characterized slavery as bad and Southern secession as unconstitutional.
In early 1920, the North Carolina textbook commission surprisingly approved "American History" for use in the state's schools. The UDC's North Carolina Division immediately protested to Dr. E.C. Brooks, the state superintendent of public instruction. Brooks tried to mollify the Division by requiring the editing of what it considered problematic language. But that wasn't good enough for the UDC.
By October 1920, the North Carolina Division called for the book to be banned outright, kicking off a highly coordinated two-year campaign to banish it from the state's schools. It began with a letter-writing campaign targeting first Brooks and then the textbook commission chair, Dr. T.R. Foust of Greensboro. The Division demanded that "American History" be banned and Lewis's "Truths of History" adopted in its stead. Tiring of the onslaught of letters, Brooks pointed the UDC towards the textbook commission's chair.
It wasn't long until the national UDC and the Rutherford Committee itself joined the fray. In a June 7, 1921 letter to Foust, Rutherford Committee Chair C. Irvine Walker demanded that only histories favorable to the South be used in North Carolina schools. He also noted that his group was already selecting histories in partnership with Mississippi and Texas and wanted North Carolina to extend the same privilege.
Julian Carr himself wrote Foust on June 9, 1921, demanding that objectionable history books be eliminated from North Carolina schools. Carr enclosed a multipage critique from the Rutherford Committee of various books, including Muzzey's, that it deemed objectionable and offensive.
A frustrated Brooks vented to a colleague that Muzzey's book had been chosen by Lost Cause loyalists on the textbook commission and said the controversy was being stoked by competing book publishers. Clearly, the UDC didn't share that view.
The reality of Brooks' situation was that the state contracted with textbook publishers in two-year blocks. Until Muzzey's contract came up for renewal, Brooks was going to have to take the beating.
By August 1921, the UDC had launched a full-scale media blitz against the book, landing coverage in North Carolina newspapers both large and small. For example, a story that ran in the Hickory Daily Record blamed the superintendent and textbook commission for approving "American History," citing various complaints including the fact that the book said slavery caused the Civil War. In another story, the paper reported:
Tar Heel Daughters of the Confederacy objections to historian Muzzey's [book] is two fold. His history, it is said, misrepresented the South and its people, and its omissions are as equally glaring. The Daughters have enlisted the confederate veterans and their protest is now in Governor Morrison's hands, who will very probably use his influence in doing something for the U.D.C. chapters.
Walker kept up the Rutherford Committee's pressure by sending a lengthy critique of "American History" directly to the State Board of Education, which oversaw the textbook commission and Superintendent Brooks.
By 1922, the public pressure and political arm-twisting had paid off: The North Carolina Textbook Commission did not renew the contract for Muzzey's book. At the state Division's annual convention that fall, Mrs. Frank L. Wilson, chair of the textbook committee, announced, "We feel safe in saying that our organization has, at this time, the sympathy and interest of the State Board of Education."
The North Carolina Division was not alone in attacking "American History." The UDC launched a similarly vicious campaign against the book when it was adopted in Virginia in 1932, and the publisher was forced to sell a watered-down version in Alabama.
And the UDC didn't stop with books: They also went after teachers who veered from the group's orthodoxy.
In February 1911, the chair of the University of Florida's history department, Enoch M. Banks, published an academic article in a New York journal arguing that the preservation of slavery was the reason Southern states seceded, thus slavery was the cause of the war. When a newspaper in Florida got wind of the article, its resulting editorial ignited a firestorm in the Florida UDC and other Confederate heritage groups. They demanded Banks' head.
By early March, Banks was the subject of a withering media campaign and had become fodder for state politicians. He soon found himself without any support from his own university administration. He then tried to reason with the UDC and defend his writing with historical evidence, but that only fueled the fire.
Several weeks later, Bank was forced to resign. His academic career effectively destroyed, he retired to his home in Georgia where he died several months later.
By the 1930s, the power of the Confederate heritage groups like the UDC was on the wane. Time had taken its toll on the UCV as Civil War veterans died off. Societal events like the Great Depression, two world wars, and then the Cold War sapped the focus and interest in groups like the UDC. As the old-guard UDC members died out, the younger generation of Southern women had much less interest in stepping in to fill the breach.
But their Lost Cause propaganda lived on.
Segregationist politicians picked up where the UDC left off and actively continued to push the Lost Cause deeper into school curriculum and the general public domain. As the civil rights movement in the South gained steam in the 1950s, the Lost Cause proponents dug in as Southern state and local governments reacted to the protests, marches, school integration, voting rights progress, and defeat after defeat in historic court cases.
In 1957, Virginia commissioned a slew of Lost Cause textbooks. One of the more famous, "Virginia: History, Government, Geography," presented slavery in glowing terms. "Enslaved people were happy to be in Virginia and were better off than they would have been in Africa," it said. "Abolitionists lied about slavery in the South."
These textbooks blamed the Civil War on Abraham Lincoln, and they falsely asserted that states' rights and not slavery were the cause of the Civil War. The publisher even included illustrations showing happy captive Africans in Western dress clothes, shaking hands with their new masters on slave ships.
A fourth-grade history book commissioned at the same time, "Virginia History," had this to say about slavery:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked.
The high school history book "Cavalier Commonwealth," also commissioned then, said slaves:
… did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree.
It also said that both the slave and master "understood that bondage as they knew it was not totally evil; both realized that enslavement in a civilized world had been better in many respects for the Negro than the barbarities he might have suffered in Africa."
Consider the similarities of the above with this excerpt from a 1914 speech delivered by the UDC's Mildred Lewis Rutherford in in Savannah, Georgia:
The negro race should give thanks daily that they and their children are not today where their ancestors were before they came into bondage.
Was the negro happy under the institution of slavery? They were the happiest set of people on the face of the globe — free from care or thought of food, clothes, home, or religious privileges.
It would be well into the 1970s before Virginia phased out these books.
Other Southern states also procured new Lost Cause books that were used well into the 1970s. In 1963, for example, Tennessee began using a history book by Mary Utopia Rothrock called "This Is Tennessee: A School History." It not only omitted slavery as the cause of the Civil War but defended it as necessary to the economy of the South and Southern culture itself. The book went through several editions.
Showdown in Mississippi
Up until 1980, Mississippi's public schools used Lost Cause textbooks exclusively — and it took a federal court order to make them stop.
In a bellwether moment for history textbooks in the South, authors James Loewen and Charles Sallis, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, sued Mississippi in federal court in 1975. The lawsuit came after the state textbook review committee, in a 5-2 vote that broke down along racial lines, rejected their nationally acclaimed, award-winning textbook, "Mississippi: Conflict and Change."
Instead, the commission chose "Your Mississippi" by Lost Cause proponent John K. Bettersworth. Though it was an updated version of an older Bettersworth book, "Your Mississippi" contained classic Lost Cause tropes, totally ignored historic racial violence such as lynchings, and almost entirely overlooked the civil rights movement.
To show Mississippi had violated its own objective book selection standards and, in the process, violated Loewen's and Sallis' constitutional rights, the lawsuit pitted the books against one another — Lost Cause vs. basic historical fact — in court.
Bettersworth's book presented enslaved people as being largely well treated by white masters and blamed harsh punishment of slaves on black overseers. It also said that states' rights were the core reason for the Civil War, and it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a simple fraternal club while totally ignoring its violence.
The white members of the textbook commission denied any racial bias in their rejection of Loewen's and Sallis' book, but trial testimony showed otherwise. The textbook commission's white members thought it focused too much on "black history" and harped on issues they considered unsavory, like the treatment of slaves, lynchings, segregation, and violence against civil rights protesters. They clearly preferred the Lost Cause version of history.
The white commission members also said "Conflict and Change" had too many disturbing pictures, like white people standing over the burning body of a black lynching victim. John Turnipseed, the committee chair, said he wanted to leave those images in the past, which prompted an exasperated Judge Orma Smith to interject himself directly into the questioning of a witness, rare in a trial:
Judge Smith: Didn't lynchings happen in Mississippi?
Turnipseed: Yes, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now?
Judge Smith: It's a history book isn't it?
In 1980, the plaintiffs won their lawsuit and forced Mississippi to adopt "Conflict and Change" for its schools — the first time that state endorsed a textbook that veered from the Lost Cause narrative.
Lost Cause resurgent
Recent years have seen a resurgence of Lost Cause propaganda promoted by remnants of the UDC and SCV, as well as by openly white-supremacist and so-called "alt-right" groups, often in connection with fights over Confederate monuments.
Elements of the Lost Cause narrative have also been incorporated into mainstream conservative political ideology and manifest in fights over school curriculum.
Consider what happened in Texas in 2010. As part of a highly publicized revamp of the state social studies curriculum, the Republican-controlled Texas Board of Education removed slavery as the central cause of the Civil War and replaced it with states' rights and secession, with Republican board member Patricia Hardy calling slavery "an after issue." The Republican members also considered referring to the slave trade as the "Atlantic Triangular Trade" before finally settling on "Transatlantic Slave Trade."
The new curriculum was silent on the KKK during Reconstruction and failed to mention the Jim Crow era at all. It also equated Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.
In addition, the curriculum claimed that Joseph McCarthy was correct when he said the U.S. government had been infiltrated by communists in the 1950s, included lessons on why the U.S. needs to return to the gold standard, and asserted that the United Nations, International Criminal Court, and global environmental initiatives undermined U.S. sovereignty. And it scrubbed any mention of Thomas Jefferson's role in U.S. history because he advocated for the separation of church and state.
It would be 2018 before the Texas standards were revised. They now blame slavery, secession, and states' rights equally as causes of the Civil War.
What happened in Texas shows the consequences of feeding Lost Cause propaganda to generations of Southern students. In some respects, the UDC's textbook campaign was quite successful, with public polling showing marked confusion about the causes of the Civil War. For example, a widely reported 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 48% of Americans thought the conflict was mainly about states' rights — including 60% of those under age 30 — while only 38% thought it was primarily about slavery.
This miseducation continues to have ramifications for U.S. civic life. A 2018 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found serious inadequacies in how the history of American slavery is taught. Students' lack basic knowledge about the critical role the slavery played in shaping the United States and how it continues to affect society today. As Hasan Kwame Jeffries notes in the report's introduction:
Our discomfort with hard history and our fondness for historical fiction also lead us to make bad public policy. We choose to ignore the fact that when slavery ended, white Southerners carried the mindsets of enslavers with them into the post-emancipation period, creating new exploitative labor arrangements such as sharecropping, new disenfranchisement mechanisms including literacy tests and new discriminatory social systems, namely Jim Crow. It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate these legal barriers to equality, but that has not been enough to erase race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education and employment to wealth and well-being. Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity.
With white extremist violence on the rise around the South and elsewhere, confronting propaganda posing as facts is as important now as ever.