Part Two: Telling the Story of America
It is commonly said that the victors in a war get to write its history. Their soldiers are brave, dedicated patriots; the defeated opponents are craven untrustworthy cowards. Their leaders are statesmen; the leaders of their opponents are terrorists. They had every right to defend themselves; their opponents launched unprovoked and unjustified sneak attacks. So it has always been, for as long as written records have existed of the wars of the past. But by a curious twist of fate, the earliest histories of the Civil War and its aftermath, and of the institution of slavery that lay at its heart, were written by the defeated Southerners, not by victorious Northerners. Within a generation after Reconstruction, the broad outlines of the story had been sketched. For the next half century and more, that story was elaborated, repeated, simplified for school books, and given the stamp of approval by the academic establishment of White historians, northern and southern..
The story went something like this: "Before the War for
Some of you may find it a little hard to believe that this appalling series of absurdities ever won anything like general acceptance even in the South, let alone in the North, so a few selected quotations may help to provide some context for these remarks. Here first are two passages from books written early in the shaping of this story. In 1907, William Archibald Dunning published a scholarly work entitled “Reconstruction, Political and Economic.” The book was part of a long series of books with the general title The American Nation: A History, edited by a professor at
"The negro had no pride of race and no aspiration or ideals save to be like the whites. With civil rights and political power, not won, but almost forced upon him, he came gradually to understand those more elusive privileges that constitute social equality. [page 213]"
Six years later, William Watson Davis, in a work on “The Civil War and Reconstruction in
"The fact is that the Southern slave was well-fed, well-housed, well-treated, and lastly, well-watched and controlled; hence the peace about the slave quarters on isolated plantations when war was raging at no great distance. Many slaves in the white households loved “their white people” [I think he probably meant “white folks”] and in return were loved with a sincerity proven by experience. They needed no watching and controlling. It was to them that the “master” confided his women and little children when he went away to fight. [page 219]"
William E. Woodward [why are all of these historians named “William”?] offered this dismissive and contemptuous evaluation of the Negro in his 1928 book, Meet General Grant:
"The American Negroes are the only people in the history of the world, so far as I know, that ever became free without any effort on their own... They had not started the war or ended it. They twanged banjoes around railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would come along and give each of them forty acres and a mule." [Quoted in Du Bois, Black Reconstruction.]
Those of you who are fans of old movies will recognize these conceptions of African Americans from the famous classic, Gone With The Wind, starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia De Havilland and Thomas Mitchell.
Not surprisingly, the earliest scholars to challenge this story of slavery and Reconstruction were Black historians, who knew from personal experience, as well as from their scholarly research, that the story was simply wrong. There are many names to call here. Pride of place must be given to Carter G. Woodson, who was born in
But I should like to speak about another scholar, whose name may in fact be known to most of you: W. E. B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt du Bois was born in 1868, just three years after the end of the war, in the
In his long life, Du Bois wrote countless books and articles, played a major role in the founding of the NAACP, established and served as the first editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that still appears regularly today, led the movement to unite the peoples of Africa with the millions of descendants of Africans scattered across the world by the slave trade, a movement known as Pan-Africanism, and he even found time to write a series of autobiographical accounts of his life. Du Bois was the greatest social scientist
Hounded by the U. S. Government for his political views, Du Bois finally left