The year was 1961.
As the Freedom Riders crossed the South in their fight for civil rights, schoolchildren in Alabama were reading about the bright side of slavery and the contributions of the Ku Klux Klan.
They were taught these lessons from “Know Alabama,” the standard fourth-grade history textbook in the state’s public schools. The book informed baby boomers and Generation Xers from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Some of those students became the teachers who taught subsequent generations.
Both white and Black children were instructed from “Know Alabama” that plantation life was a joyous time and slaves were generally contented. They read that Confederates were brave heroes, and Reconstruction was a terrible time when carpetbaggers, scalawags and illiterate Blacks corrupted the state.
Today, with factions across Alabama caught up in a clash over the meaning of Confederate monuments and symbols, many are debating the true history of the South. Is it the version that Black Lives Matter protesters shout in the public square or the story taught in Southern schools during and after the fight over segregation?
The search for answers starts with the primary author of “Know Alabama.”
Frank L. Owsley grew up on a sprawling farm near Montgomery where his father profited by renting land to Black sharecroppers. A history professor at Vanderbilt University, Owsley was a member of the Twelve Southerners, or Southern Agrarians, who wrote a pro-Southern manifesto titled “I’ll Take My Stand.”
Critics say the group romanticized Lost Cause ideology and ignored the evils of slavery.
“Owsley was a dyed-in-the-wool racist who described the slaves as ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals,’ and who defended the South against what he saw as overly aggressive reconstructionists who wanted to give black civil rights and destroy Southern culture,” said Gordon Harvey, professor and history department head at Jacksonville State University. “When a racist writes your state history, you are going to get a warped portrayal of slavery and a celebration of the old South.”
The other authors were John Craig Stewart, former professor and director of creative writing at University of South Alabama in Mobile, and Gordon T. Chappell, professor and head of the Department of History and Political Science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery.
Harvey said an inaccurate picture of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction persists today because of textbooks such as “Know Alabama.” He knows this first hand because he was an Alabama fourth-grader in 1976-77 when the textbook was still in the classrooms.
“What we believe is seeded by teachers and parents, and also reinforced by them,” Harvey said. “If you are taught that slavery was good and the slaves were really freed after the war, then you will grow up with that internalized.
“The problem is that we have done a poor job of teaching teachers who teach our students about the complexities of history, the ills of slavery, and that slavery and the slaveholders had no redeeming values whatsoever. Further, we have failed to draw the line from slavery and emancipation to the issues African Americans face today.”
Best Of Times On The Plantation
At many points, contents of the 1961 edition of “Know Alabama” thunder into the age of Black Lives Matter with all the subtleness of a Confederate cavalry charge. At other points they hide like a wisteria-covered antebellum ruin, inviting closer scrutiny.
Now we come to one of the happiest ways of life in Alabama before the War Between the States.
This is “Know Alabama’s” introduction to slavery.
The authors do not explore what life was like with no freedom, with the ever-present threat of losing a loved one to the slave trade or of being whipped. They do not mention being worked from sunup to sundown in the Alabama heat to enrich a white planter.
“Now suppose you were a little boy or girl and lived in one of the plantation homes many years ago,” the book states as it takes its young audience on a romantic trip through antebellum times.
The Negro cook whom you call “Mammy” comes in bringing a great tray of food. You have known her all your life and love her very much. She was your nurse when you were a baby.
As with most other happily submissive slaves in this state-sanctioned version of history, Mammy smiles when she serves her masters.
The white boy in this historical fiction rides off on a horse alongside his father to observe slaves in the fields.
Most of them were treated kindly. There were a few masters who did not treat their slaves kindly. The first thing any good master thought about was the care of his slaves. … Many nights you have gone with your mother to the “quarters” where she cared for some sick person. She is the best friend the Negroes have, and they know it. …
As you ride up beside the Negroes in the field, they stop working long enough to look up, tip their hats and say, “Good morning, Master John.” You like the friendly way they speak and smile; they show bright rows of white teeth.
“How’s it coming, Sam?” your father asks one of the old Negroes.
“Fine, Marse Tom, jes fine. We got ‘most more cotton than we can pick.” Then Sam chuckles to himself and goes back to picking as fast as he can.
After you return home for dinner and awake from your afternoon nap, it’s time to play “Indian” with a Black boy named “Jig.”
The authors of “Know Alabama” named the boy the shortened version of “jigaboo,” which Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as an “insulting and contemptuous term for a black person.”
The textbook explains “he got that name because he dances so well when the Negroes play their banjos.”
Jig comes up and says, “Let me play.”
And you say, “All right, but you be the captive Indian.”
“That will be fun,” Jig says, and he goes off gladly to be the Indian, to hide and to get himself captured.
Better Off A Slave?
Harvey said the description of slavery in books like “Know Alabama” is far from accurate.
“In these texts, slavery is depicted as a benign, almost benevolent, system that gave the slaves a better life than that which they had in their native lands,” he said. “Except, of course, the nagging detail that they were held in bondage, worked to death and repeatedly raped by slave owners.”
Sandwiched between the chapter in “Know Alabama” on slavery and a section on the Civil War is the biography of former Alabama slave Maria Fearing. After the U.S. victory in the Civil War, a free Fearing attended what was then called Talladega College for Negroes. Later, she went to Central Africa as a missionary.
While fourth-graders learned of Fearing’s achievements, they also received an inferred lesson: Slavery in the South saved Blacks from the poverty and savagery of Africa, where they were in danger of being eaten by cannibals.
Fearing’s mistress, Amanda Winston, told her about “the naked, barefoot children in Africa, who knew nothing about the true God.” Later, the authors say the African children were half-starved, with lice in their hair and sores all over their bodies.
Sometimes children, who had been kidnapped by cannibal tribes, were rescued by the missionaries.
The textbook points out that in Fearing’s last years she returned to the plantation where she was born to live with her nephew.
War Between The States
The authors of the 1961 edition of “Know Alabama” never used the term “Civil War.” In every reference, they taught children to call it the “War Between the States.”
Gaines M. Foster, a history professor at Louisiana State University, writes in The Journal of the Civil War Era that it matters what history calls the war. He said people in the North generally called it “the Rebellion” until they accepted the name “Civil War” in an attempt to appease the South and reunite the country.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the major champion of the Lost Cause, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, campaigned for War Between the States to be the name of the war. They believed it testified to the legality of secession and therefore the existence of a Confederate nation. Indeed, the UDC argued that the “States” in the name referred not to the individual states but to the “United States” and the “Confederate States” — two independent nations.”
The UDC influenced and vetted the contents of school history textbooks and library books, including “Know Alabama,” according to historians. Even today, the UDC refers to the Civil War as the War Between the States.
The textbook describes slavery as a system of labor. The North did not have as much need for unskilled farm labor, the authors explain, and “did not fully understand the ways that slaves worked in the South.”
The Southerners had a right under the law to own slaves, and the Southern states had a right under the law to leave the United States. Many Southerners did not want to leave the Union. But when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the South felt that they had to leave the Union to keep their rights.
Harvey said the book portrays the war as a grand crusade for states rights, for freedom, to preserve the Southern lifestyle and protect the homeland from aggressive Northern attack.
“Of course, if you read the secession proclamations of each Southern state, you will see slavery as the primary reason they are seceding,” he said.
Harvey said he compares the stated causes of the Civil War to an apple pie.
“You can argue way of life, states rights and agrarian lifestyle, etc., but each of those causes has slavery as a central ingredient,” he said. “Like trying to eat apple pie without having a bite of apple in each slice.”
Southern Heroes, Northern Fools
Lke the sports editor of a small-town newspaper, it is clear whose team the authors of “Know Alabama” prefer.
The army of soldiers in gray grew larger and larger. Soon they were one of the best armies the world has ever known. The Southern men were brave fighters and their generals — Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson — were two of the greatest war leaders ever known. The North had more men, guns, and more food than the South. In four years of war, this “more” of everything finally caused the South to lose.
The textbook devotes six full pages to Streight’s Raid across north Alabama, a comparably minor Union military operation that involved about 1,600 men. The raid ended in a humiliating surrender by Union troops to Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the raid that elevated Emma Sansom of Gadsden to folk heroine status for showing Forrest a shallow spot where his men could ford a creek.
The story revels in Forrest’s success at tricking Union Col. Abel Streight into surrendering, despite the fact that Streight had 1,000 more men.
That is how the big raid of the “Yankees” in north Alabama ended. When all the guns were taken over by his own soldiers, General Forrest laughed out loud and said to his men, “Take a rest, boys.”
To make sure students fully understood who was brave and who was cowardly, the authors asked the following study questions:
Why did Colonel Streight tell his men to run when General Forrest caught up with them?
Why did Colonel Streight’s men hide?
How did General Forrest prove his bravery?
How did General Forrest fool Colonel Streight?
What lesson can be learned in Colonel Streight’s defeat by General Forrest?
“Know Alabama” also celebrates “great men from Alabama in the War Between the States.” These men include the “gallant” John Pelham of Alexandria, who was killed in Virginia, and Admiral Raphael Semmes, who lost his ship Alabama to the Union Navy.
There are no brave, gallant or heroic Yankees in “Know Alabama.” Instead, “they
stole jewelry, silver, and clothing. They sometimes killed people who would not tell where their money was hidden.”
Reconstruction Of The Reconstruction
After the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, many leaders did not want to be “kind” to the South, according to “Know Alabama.” The textbook said activities during Reconstruction caused more bad feelings in the South than the war itself.
The book is particularly critical of the Freedmen’s Bureau, established to help newly freed Blacks find jobs and become citizens. Carpetbaggers and scalawags operated the Freedmen’s Bureau in Alabama, the book says.
“Carpetbaggers” were those people from the North who came to the South to live after the war. … Most of them were not honest men, and they came to steal and cheat people. They wanted to make money out of the helpless white and Negro Southerners. … The “scalawags” were Southerners who turned against their own people in the South.
Under the headline “THE TERRIBLE CARPETBAG RULE,” the textbook teaches schoolchildren that the carpetbaggers and scalawags tried to turn Blacks against their white friends.
They told them that the men who had been their masters were their enemies. They told the Negroes that they would soon own all the land.
The book stated that a new government formed in Alabama in October 1867 required people who wanted to vote to swear they had never helped the Confederacy in any way. At the same time, it said, the carpetbaggers told thousands of Blacks how to vote.
The state legislature in Montgomery was made up of carpetbaggers, scalawags and Negroes. The Negroes were nearly all field workers. They could not read and write. They did not know what it meant to run a government. The carpetbaggers used the Negroes to carry out their own plans, which were not for the good of the people.
Saved By The Klan
While “Know Alabama” considers carpetbaggers “terrible,” it has no such criticism of the Ku Klux Klan.
The loyal white men of Alabama saw they could not depend on the laws or the state government to protect their families. They knew they had to do something to bring back law and order, to get the government back in the hands of honest men who knew how to run it.
About this time, a group of men formed the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first grand wizard.
The Klan did not ride often, only when it had to. But whenever some bad thing was done by a person who thought the carpetbag law would protect him, the white-robed Klan would appear on the streets. They would go to the person who had done the wrong and leave a warning. Sometimes this warning was enough, but if the person kept on doing the bad, lawless things the Klan came back again.
They held their courts in the dark forests at night; they passed sentence on the criminals and they carried out the sentence. Sometimes the sentence would be to leave the state.
The textbook says no one knew who the Klansmen were or where they came from because they were sworn to secrecy.
After a while, the Klan struck fear in the hearts of the carpetbaggers and other lawless men who had taken control of the state. Many of the carpetbaggers went back north. Others who stayed in the South behaved themselves. The Negroes who had been fooled by the false promises of the carpetbaggers decided to get themselves jobs and settle down to make an honest living
Many of the Negroes in the South remained loyal to the white Southerners. Even though they had lately been freed from slavery, even though they had no education, they knew who their friends were. They knew that the Southern white men who had been good to them in the time of their slavery were still their friends. … Many of them helped to make the other Negroes understand they must be honest and keep the laws if they wanted to stay in the South.
When federal troops left and white men had restored order, the book states, there was no more need for the Klan.
“Know Alabama” does not mention the Jim Crow era that followed the departure of federal troops. Blacks were forbidden to vote and were stripped of any political influence. They were terrorized and became the victims of 340 known lynchings in Alabama from 1877 to 1950, according to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.
Evolution of ‘Know Alabama’
“Know Alabama” underwent revisions through the years, with the most notable changes coming after complaints in 1970 by Black parents and criticism in the U.S. Senate that was reported in the national media.
The 1970 edition of “Know Alabama” stops using the UDC’s preferred name for the Civil War. It no longer introduces the chapter on slavery as “one of the happiest ways of life in Alabama before the War Between the States.”
Now we come to another way of life in Alabama before the Civil War. This is life as it was lived on the big plantations.
The textbook still uses the planter’s son to tell the story of antebellum life, but eliminates the Mammy and Jig characters. The same illustration of Mammy serving the family dinner, however, appears in the later book.
The newer edition still states most slaves were treated kindly, but it drops the part about the plantation owner’s wife being the slaves’ best friend. Then, it adds a new paragraph.
Most black people probably did not like being in a system of slavery. Most wanted their freedom. However, all but the most intelligent made the best of the situation and seemed to be fairly content.
The 1970 edition also includes a new chapter about free Blacks who lived in Alabama, particularly in Tuscaloosa County. The textbook says 80 free Blacks lived in the county in 1860.
The laws of the city and county of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were in many cases just and fair to free Negroes.
Tuscaloosa County was also the site of seven lynchings after the Civil War.
The textbook retains the story of former slave Maria Fearing, who became a missionary to Africa. But it no longer describes the children of Africa as barefoot, naked, and covered in sores and lice.
In addressing the Civil War, the book states “wars have many causes. Slavery was only one of the causes of the Civil War.”
Much of the section on Reconstruction and the “terrible carpetbagger rule” remains intact, but it no longer claims whites had been good to slaves and had treated them as friends.
The later edition acknowledges the KKK “sometimes used violence and fear so that Alabama might be rid of the control of the carpetbaggers.” Instead of saying the Klan rode “only when it had to,” the book says it mobilized only when its members “thought they had to.”
Coming after forced integration of public schools and the civil rights movement, the textbook also makes additional statements to distance the KKK of Forrest’s day from the Klan of the modern era. It’s the good Klan, bad Klan argument.
There is no connection between the Ku Klux Klan of this period and similarly named organizations which were formed in the South in the 20th Century. The primary purpose of the latter organizations was to gain political control and to maintain white supremacy. Violence and threats of violence often occurred as the Klan attempted to secure these ends.
Harvey said historians debate whether there were different Klans.
“Regardless, the Klan was at its start, as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond, a terrorist paramilitary organization designed to fight back against Reconstruction forces in the South, force blacks when they had a vote to vote against their interests, and to harm and kill them when they dared disobey the rules of segregation,” Harvey said.
He said the Klan was designed to intimidate and kill free blacks in the South after the Civil War.
“Let’s not forget that Forrest was the man who ordered the Fort Pillow massacre, where his CSA troops gunned down federal troops, most of whom were free blacks, after they surrendered,” Harvey added.
Knowing the Real Alabama
The three authors of “Know Alabama” are no longer alive to defend their ideology and influence over tens of thousands of schoolchildren.
Owsley suffered a fatal heart attack in 1956 while conducting research in England, according to the Encyclopedia of Tennessee.
“Across a distinguished career, his work retained a singular theme,” the publication states. “Ending a lecture series presented to the University of Georgia’s faculty and students in 1938, he relished their applause because, in his words, ‘it was the rebel yell that I heard.’”
The effects of “Know Alabama” continue about 65 years after the state introduced it into fourth-grade classrooms, according to historians.
Harvey said that when we begin telling the truth about history, we might move forward as a society to deal with our “original sin” — slavery and racism.
“Until we come to terms in an open way and acknowledge what we have done — as a nation that dares defend our freedoms — to people of color who merely want freedom to exist and not be discriminated against or killed, then we will never fulfill the promise of America,” Harvey said.