Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 4
"'Who Controls the Past Controls the Future': The Virginia History Textbook Controversy"
- Adam Wesley Dean, pp. 318–355
During the civil rights movement, the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction became bitterly contested. Segregationists used the Lost Cause version of these events to generate opposition to integration. Civil rights activists responded with their own histories documenting slavery’s evils, placing race at the center of the Civil War, and relabeling Reconstruction’s failure as a tragedy instead of a triumph. In 1948, the Virginia General Assembly, controlled by the Democratic Party, created a textbook commission to impose their own version of history in Virginia public schools. The assembly mandated that all fourth-, seventh-, and eleventh-grade students—both black and white—learn the state’s history from books created by the commission. As Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse recognized, public perception of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction influenced Virginia's "gravest problem from Appomattox down to today—the race problem."
The government-mandated textbooks presented slaves as generally happy and the Civil War as resulting from unwarranted federal interference in state affairs. This article examines how and why these textbooks entered Virginia public schools. It connects the history presented in the books to contemporary battles over integration from President Harry Truman’s 1948 order desegregating the army to massive resistance. The article also explores opposition to the books, emphasizing the role of African American teachers, national outrage, and the election of Republican governor Linwood Holton in removing the books from public school curriculum by the 1970s.