History, History Column

1957 Textbook-Fake News

Old Town Crier

Written by ©2019 Sarah Becker

Copyright ©2019 Sarah Becker

1957 Textbook-Fake News


In 1950 the 81st Congress convened; government scientists worked on a hydrogen bomb and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy condemned Communism.   Soviet-armed North Korean troops invaded South Korea; the U.S. Supreme Court upheld black Americans right to attend a state law school, and segregated Virginia ranked thirty-fourth in its financial support of education.  In Virginia education was mostly “neglected,” except for a 7th grade state-listed history book written to appeal to a “conservative rural audience.”   

“What is most distressing about the product of the 1950 Virginia Textbook Commission—and the Virginia General Assembly that created it—is not the over-glorifying of Virginia’s heritage, but a lack of confidence in it or her people,” The Virginian-Pilot wrote in 1965.  “The concept of an arm of the government supervising the writing of history is precisely the sort of statism to which Virginia politicians object so vehemently in their own Federal Government.”

President Donald J. Trump (R-NY) defines fake news as not true.  “False stories created to be shared or distributed for the purpose of…promoting or discrediting a public figure or political movement.”  Commission Chairman, former Virginia Delegate and a top-ranking member of the Byrd Organization Cecil W. Taylor, of Lynchburg, admitted the 7th grade textbook—Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins—was “written with bias, glorification, and political cant.”

In fact, the 7th grade history text was “‘purified’ by state censors” in an effort “to appeal to conservative Virginia’s point of view.”   

“Dixie [the South] is of two cultures,” Charles Reagan Wilson wrote in 1980.  “One of Christian and one of southern values…In the years after the Civil War a pervasive southern civil religion emerged.  This common religion of the South, which grew out of Confederate defeat in the Civil War, had an identifiable mythology, ritual and organization.”  Virginia’s “identifiable” organization belonged to State Senator (1916-1926), Governor (1926-1930), and U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., (1933-1965).

“Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy,” historian V.O. Key, Jr., wrote in 1949.  “Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who…have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government.  The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832…It is a museum piece.”

“Some of the free Negroes were given an opportunity to go to school,” Francis Butler Simkins wrote.  “The Quakers supported schools for Negroes at Williamsburg and at Alexandria…But it seems from the records that only a small portion of colonial Negroes attended school.  Nevertheless, the colonial Negroes were trained in many useful skills…In time they learned the English language and the beliefs and customs of their masters so well that they forgot most of their African ways…[T]hey adopted the ideals of the Virginia planter and his family.”

“For more than a year after the close of the [civil] war, the feeling between the white people and the Negroes was quite friendly,” Butler continued.  “The white people accepted the fact that the Negroes were free.  And most of the freedmen respected and trusted their former masters…It was a different story with younger Negroes.  Although they were badly needed for work on the farms, many of them refused to work at any price.  They thought freedom from slavery meant freedom from work; they wanted to enjoy their freedom in idleness.”

Propaganda: “information, ideas, half-truths or rumors deliberately spread to help or harm a group, movement, institution or nation.”

“Obviously the 7th grade textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geography is set up to glorify…a political point of view,” John Klousis, the 1965 director of city instruction for Norfolk city schools declared.  “We ought to be teaching kids to think critically.  Instead this book glorifies a past that never was.”

Alexandria Living Legend Carlton A. Funn, Sr., a black elementary school teacher born at 1005 Oronoco Street, was a philosopher of a type.  When we met in 2008 the retired Lyles Crouch educator—still carried the same 1957 7th grade history text segregated Virginia used in the 1950s-1970s.

A graduate of Storer College, a black college located in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Funn found the textbook’s Jim Crow-like passages historically inaccurate.  Among Simkins off-putting lines: “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,” Simkins continued.  “They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed.  The Negroes had their problems and their troubles.  But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them.  In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.”

Carlton Funn’s childhood neighbor Jesse Jennings explained the black student’s dilemma.  “What used to disturb me about the textbooks was the fact that they left out so much black history,” Jennings said.  “The comments that referenced blacks were inaccurate watered down comments.  Those who made these comments tended to protect the white image.  They were in denial of discrimination.”

The Virginia General Assembly passed the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity in 1924.  The Act required all Virginia residents to note their status as either “white or colored.”  State Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., [D-VA10] after “easily” winning the 1925 Democratic gubernatorial primary, explained the essential components of his platform; in a speech to the Democratic State Central Committee.  “Byrd defended the one party system that controlled Virginia and the South as absolutely necessary for the maintenance of white rule.”

“Byrd argued that a black electorate with decisive strength to sway elections constituted a much greater evil than ‘the continued and unchallenged government by a single political party,’” J. Douglas Smith Alexandria city attorney Armistead Booth’s grandson explained.    

“There are 700,000 negroes in Virginia and the most important task of the Democratic Party is to keep them poor, so they will not be able to meet certain economic qualifications [poll tax], and to keep them ignorant, so they will not be able to meet certain educational qualifications [literacy],” The Norfolk Journal and Guide observed.  “The Democratic Party’s fealty to white supremacy ensured that educational [also voting] opportunities for negroes remained even more illusory than those for white Virginians.”

“Virginians desired the Negroes to become good citizens, but they wanted to settle this problem in their own way,” Simkins 7th grade history text concluded.  “The federal government, however, was unwilling for Virginians to do this.”   

Virginia’s “reputation for good race relations” remained relatively intact until the mid-1950s, when white Virginians, the white South went the way of massive resistance.  Rather than comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Senator Byrd, Sr., relied on a Southern Manifesto.  Virginia’s 1956 school-closing laws “required the governor to close any school that enrolled even a single black student.”

Not until Samuel W. Tucker’s 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County, VA—a case argued one day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; the U.S. Supreme Court’s extension of Brown—did Virginia School Districts implement full desegregation.  Virginia NAACP attorney Samuel W. Tucker heeded attorney Charles Hamilton Houston’s call because he was “born black in Alexandria.”

“By 1972, under the direction of Republican Governor Linwood Holton—father of Board of Education member Anne Holton, father-in-law of Virginia Senator and former Governor Tim Kaine—the state began to decommission the books,” The Virginia Mercury wrote, “though some textbooks [like Simkins] stayed in the Virginia classroom until the late 1970s.”

“It was Virginia’s 1990s adoption of uniform statewide Standards of Learning (SOL) for social studies education that led to the publication of a new generation of textbooks, textbooks that included more social and cultural history specific to women, African-Americans and Indians,” The Library of Virginia confirmed.  Virginia’s statewide 2018-2019 SOL scores show Alexandria students are still trailing the State average: reading, writing, and history included.  This despite 2017 changes to the test(s).

Fake news and white supremacy are much discussed today.  Whether the conversation is born of the Byrd legacy; the 2020 census and voting rights; President Trump’s controversial tweets; the internet and radicalization; Alt Right organizer Richard Spencer’s 2017-2018 Alexandria stay; the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, the El Paso killing spree, gun violence and or reform…let’s tell the story(s) truthfully.

Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity was overturned in part in 1967; repealed in total in 1975.   

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.

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