Representations of Race and Racism in Freedmen’s Textbooks

Greetings from Atlanta! I’m here for the American Historical Association (AHA) conference. I will be presenting at the poster session tomorrow, Saturday, and I’m really excited. I decided to present my research in poster format for two reasons. Firstly, this study lends itself particularly well to visual presentation. My poster investigates representations of race and racism in nineteenth century textbooks and I have been able to present many of my findings through images and lessons from the textbooks themselves. Secondly, the AHA does not accept proposals for individual papers and anyone who wants to present a paper needs to find co-panelists. As I am the only PhD student in my department that studies American History much less black education during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, it would have been very difficult for me to organise a panel. However, the Fulbright award has given me untold opportunities to meet people that have similar research interests and I’m sure that, going forward, I will not have any problems arranging a panel if I so wish! Today, I am going to give you a little peek at what my poster examines.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction era, 1861-1876, thousands of former slaves established schools for themselves and their children. Aided by northern missionaries as well as some southern whites, black people throughout the American South built schoolhouses, hired teachers and purchased textbooks. Some of these textbooks were specifically created for the freed people. The American Tract Society published the vast majority of these textbooks. Other textbooks were the same as those that were typically used in northern common schools. In some instances, the Bible was used as a supplementary text because a lack of funding prevented the purchase of books or other resources. This study investigates the representations of race and racism in the textbooks used in southern black schools during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. In particular, this study investigates how black people were portrayed and to what end.

For this study, I analysed a total of twenty-one primary-level textbooks. This sample included spellers, readers and geography textbooks. All of the northern common school textbooks followed the format of a traditionally-styled textbook – much like the textbooks we use today. Some of the textbooks created for the freed people were also styled in this way, such as The Freedmen’s Spelling Book or The Freedmen’s Third Reader. Two freedmen’s textbooks, The Freedman and The Freedman’s Torchlight, can be classified as instructional newspapers. These newspaper/textbooks offered academic lessons alongside news articles. Four freedmen’s textbooks served as advice manuals. These textbooks were profoundly didactic and their ultimate goal was to teach the former slaves their duties and responsibilities as freed men and women.

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“Peter Puff and Betty Simple” in Plain Counsels for Freedmen. Many northern whites believed that they had to educate the freed people lest they succumb to the vices of intemperance and idleness. This image was used to depict what the freed people should not do.

The primary goal of the textbooks created for the freed people was to teach the former slaves the duties and responsibilities of freedom. This goal was deemed necessary because the vast majority of northern whites believed that the freed people were racially inferior, degraded by slavery and incapable of controlling their own educational institutions. Thus, freedmen’s textbooks attempted to inculcate the former slaves with northern middle-class ideals and values such as industry, frugality, temperance and piety. In essence, the northern white textbook authors, publishers and designers attempted to remake the former slaves in the image of middle-class northerners. A second goal of these textbooks was to mould the former slaves into a subservient labour force. Although Union victory resulted in the emancipation of some four million slaves, the northern and southern economies were reliant on black labour and all of the freedmen’s texts promoted the value of industry and hard work. Some even encouraged the former slaves to forgive their former masters and return to work in the fields or on the plantations.

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“Stages of Society” in Mitchell’s System of Modern Geography (1856)

Representations of race and racism were not particularly evident in the northern common school spellers or readers. However, northern geography textbooks were profoundly racist, particularly in the lessons about Africa or the African people. Most geography textbooks divided mankind into five races or four stages of society. Whites were invariably positioned at the top of the racial hierarchy and blacks at the bottom. Such lessons were designed to promote the superiority of the white race.

To summarise, some of the northern common school textbooks attempted to maintain white supremacy while most of the textbooks created for the freed people attempted to extend the patriarchal system of slavery and preserve the antebellum southern social order. There were some variations and I examine these in the poster.

This is but a brief synopsis of my research. If you’re at the AHA be sure to pop down and see me at the poster session tomorrow to find out more.  I’ll be delighted to answer any questions that you may have!


One thought on “Representations of Race and Racism in Freedmen’s Textbooks

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