Slaves in Alabama could thank their masters for providing them with one of the earliest versions of social security, according to a ninth grade textbook used for more than a decade in public schools.
The textbook — Charles Grayson Summersell’s “Alabama History for Schools” — dismissed realities of slavery, glorified the Confederacy and defended deeds of the Ku Klux Klan.
Summersell’s textbook was the ninth grade companion to Frank L. Owlsey’s “Know Alabama,” written for fourth graders. In addition to repeating much of the same Lost Cause ideology, the two esteemed authors shared similar career paths, which included serving as chair of the history department at the University of Alabama. They influenced tens of thousands of grammar-school children, high school and college students, and professors.
Both authors also drew from predecessors such as Alabama history textbook writers L.D. Miller, Albert B. Moore, L. Lamar Matthews and others for a now-disputed version of history repeated for about seven decades.
Teachers were still using Owsley’s and Summersell’s books after classrooms were widely integrated in the late 1960s, and they continued to use revised editions well into the 1970s. The later editions toned down the contention that slaves were mostly happy and contented.
Wayne Flynt, history professor emeritus at Auburn University, gives multiple examples of how Summersell and other authors defended slavery in Alabama.
“Just one big happy family, with well-intentioned whites taking care of a child-race, which knew no better,” Flynt summarized. “Of course, to be fair to them (these authors), they were creatures of their times, many the sons or grandsons of slave owners. And the civil rights movement educated my generation as stories about Confederate valor and honor dominated theirs.”
Slavery as Social Security
Perhaps Summersell’s most unsettling statements to high school students come when he cites benefits he contends slaves enjoyed. In the 1957 edition of his textbook, he writes:
With all the drawbacks of slavery, it should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States. It was the legal responsibility of the master to take care of aged workers. It was against the law to emancipate a slave after he was too old to work. The master was responsible for looking after his over-aged slaves.
The author devotes little space to the “drawbacks” of slavery. Scattered through the chapter on slavery, he mentions that punishment for slaves included lashing. He acknowledges it was against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. He states that slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation without a pass and could not own property.
Summersell described the everyday lives of slaves, what they ate, where they lived, how their white owners treated them.
In one respect the slave was almost always better off than free laborers, white or black, of the same period. The slave received the best medical care which the times could offer. … The ill health of the slave meant a loss of working time to the master, and the death of a slave was a great economic loss. For these reasons, and sometimes because the slave was considered practically a member of the family, the sick slave was treated by the same plantation doctor who tended the master.
He explains why planters organized the one-room log slave cabins so close together on plantations:
Like the white people in the slavery country, the Negroes liked to live together to keep from getting lonesome.
Summersell writes that slaves especially enjoyed pigs’ feet, chitterlings and cracklings for crackling bread. Then he adds, “The good old summer meant time to eat watermelons.”
Whites began using watermelons as a racist stereotype during the Jim Crow era in the South, according to a 2014 article by William R. Black in The Atlantic. He wrote:
“The trope came in full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness and unwanted public presence.”
In addition to his comments on food, Summersell made the following observations:
- The most favorable view of slavery appears in the plantation records which show the everyday life and labor of the slaves, while the most unfavorable view of slavery is seen from the study of the laws on slavery. … The legal rights of a slave were fewer than those of a free man, but the slave had some rights.
- A slave was more likely to be punished by his master than by the law. The punishment was often the lash. Slaves were rarely convicted of crimes or sentenced to jail because it was considered to be more of a punishment for the master than for the slave, because the slave was such valuable property.
- Free Negroes had a society of their own and had a good time in each other’s company. Did you know that some free Negroes themselves owned slaves?… One of the greatest drawbacks of the free Negroes was that he had few opportunities to go to school and get an education.
According to “The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship” in the Library of Congress, a “very small number of free blacks owned slaves.” Most of these slaves were relatives whom the free Blacks purchased and then manumitted.
Summersell provides six reasons Alabama and the South lost the Civil War. Then, he concludes:
Taken together, these things cancelled out the brilliant victories of General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Thus we explain why the South won most of the big battles but still lost the war.
Part of the blame for losing the war was Northern propaganda. He argues:
The North had a more convincing propaganda line than the South. The abolition crusade against slavery fired the Northerners against the Southerners.
Summersell also contends that during Reconstruction, Northern propaganda spread “outrage stories” about the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
Historians today regard the Klan as a social terrorist group that used violence to uphold white supremacy as blacks were gaining newfound freedom and rights after the Civil War.
Following in the Footsteps
Owlsley, Summersell and college textbook author Albert B. Moore were highly regarded historians, according to Flynt. They followed similar paths that included Vanderbilt University, where Owlsley and Moore were professors and Summersell received his Ph.D.
Moore was chair of the history department at the University of Alabama for 28 years. Owsley was named chair of the history department in 1949. Summersell followed him as chair from 1954 to 1971.
Moore wrote “History of Alabama and Her People,” which was used as the standard college textbook from 1934 until at least 1960.
“He was a superstar among Southern historians and very much a man of his times,” Flynt said. “And despite his racial attitudes … he chaired the history department at Alabama, was dean of the graduate school and president of the Southern Historical Society in 1943.”
Flynt, who also has served as president of the historical society, addresses the contradictions of these influential historians in the preface of the new Bicentennial Edition of the college textbook “Alabama: The History of a Deep South State.”
Historians can be wrong. Wrong because they don’t thoroughly sample sources. Wrong because they bring to their work too many unchallenged assumptions from families, regions, nations, religions, races, and cultures. Wrong because they too glibly accept the dominant mood and intellectual framework of their times. In some sense, every generation has to rewrite the history of the places, people, and events of the past in terms of their own evolving realities.
In Moore’s case, the author “lingered too long in the presence of his planter ancestors,” Flynt writes.
History That Insulted Southern Leaders
Struggles over how to teach Alabama history began almost immediately after the Civil War.
According to a U.S. Bureau of Education report, the controversy began when Alabama’s Reconstruction-era school superintendent, N.B. Cloud, introduced statewide textbooks. These textbooks were “objectionable to the majority of whites.”
This was especially the case with the history books, which the whites complained were insulting to their accounts of southern leaders and southern questions. Cloud was not the man to allow the southern view of controversial questions to be taught in schools under his control. About 1869 he secured a donation of several thousand copies of history books which gave the northern views of American history, and these he distributed among the teachers and the schools.
But most of the literature that the whites considered objectionable did not come from Cloud’s department, but from the (Freedman’s) bureau and aid society teachers, and was used in the schools for blacks. There were several series of “Freedman’s Readers” and “Freedmen’s Histories” prepared for use in Negro schools. But the fact remains that for 10 or 15 years northern histories were taught in white schools and had a decided influence on the readers.
There was little opposition to educating former slaves after the war, according to the report, and “the old slaveholders believed it to be necessary to the good of society.” But in addition to a desire to control which textbooks were used in Black classrooms, there was a movement to employ Confederate veterans and Confederate widows to teach Black students the Southern views on history.
This concern over teaching a history that was favorable to Alabama and the South grew after Reconstruction ended, with the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the forefront of the movement. During a meeting of the Alabama Division in 1897, the women discussed “whether there was a truthful school history in print,” according to the state UDC website.
Four years later, the daughters had an answer to their concern with the publication of “History of Alabama: Adapted to the Use of Schools and for General Reading.” Gordon Harvey, history department chair at Jacksonville State University, mentioned the textbook’s author, L.D. Miller, in an essay for medium.com.
Miller had only wonderful things to say about slavery, reflecting the apologists of the 19th century. He wrote of the “song and laughter” of slaves working in the fields. Slave owners were a misunderstood bunch, he wrote. “Never was any class of people more unjustly represented and maligned than were the slave owners of the South.” … “Nevertheless they were used as instruments by an allwise Providence to raise four millions of humans from the lowest cannibalistic savagery to a knowledge of the gospel of Christ, and thus did a greater visible work for Christianity than all the foreign missionaries together for one hundred years previous to 1860.”
Chapter by United Daughters of the Confederacy
The UDC’s influence also was present in “History Stories of Alabama,” a fourth grade textbook first copyrighted in 1924. The State Textbook Purchasing Board approved of the 1952 version to be sold for $2.07 a copy.
“You can rest assured that in every epoch of history, your state has done its part nobly,” author L. Lamar Matthews told schoolchildren in the introduction. To teachers, the author added:
Always be true to the facts and treat the materials used with strictest honesty. All facts are not suitable for children. Leave unsuitable facts out, but make sure that those which you teach are true and that they are given in their right relations to other facts, so that when the children grow older they will have nothing to unlearn.
Some of the facts that Matthews left out of the textbook related to slavery. One of the few references to slavery occurs in a story about five enslaved stonemasons who cut the granite used for the massive pillars at the Old State Bank in Decatur. When workers finished the building, Matthews writes, the city had a celebration.
All of the slaves in the town were given a holiday that they might see the work of the five faithful stonecutters. The president of the bank made a ringing speech to the slaves. Then he called the five stonecutters up before him. They came forward and knelt before the president, who gave to each of the five a paper that made him a free man.
The chapter’s study questions asked: “Why did the five slaves deserve freedom?” and “What might all of us learn from these five humble slaves?”
Ten chapters of the book celebrate the same Confederate military officers and events that are praised in the later state textbooks.
In one section, Matthews salutes the UDC, which vetted textbooks and placed hundreds of Confederate monuments across the South.
Mary Phelan Watt, who was president of the UDC Cradle of the Confederacy Chapter 94 in Montgomery during the early 1900s, wrote the chapter on the inauguration of the Confederate president. She witnessed the event as a child.
“I almost wept with excitement when William Lowndes Yancey introduced Jefferson Davis, saying ‘The man and the hour have met,’” Watt writes to fourth-graders.
A suggested activity in the textbook had children crafting Confederate flags using cardboard and colored pencils, an activity replicated in later textbooks.
Teachers Make Do Until Revisions
The civil rights movement integrated classrooms faster than publishers revised the contents of the old standby textbooks by Summersell and Owlsley. This awkward transition left teachers to adapt on their own to the changing times.
Virginia Holladay was a student who used Summersell’s book in high school. She later had to use the same book when she started teaching Alabama history in about 1969 at Morgan County High School, now Hartselle High.
Soon after she began teaching, the school system adopted a new Macmillan Publishers textbook by Auburn University history professors. Eventually, the school system updated again by using the 1980 edition of “The Story of Alabama” by Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton.
“I had them (high school officials) keep enough copies of the Summersell book and the Auburn book,” Holladay said. “It turned out to be a good move.”
In the classroom, she said, she contrasted portrayals of history from the old and new textbooks.
“Students could turn to certain sections to see for themselves,” she said.
She also used first-hand accounts by former slaves published by Lamar County Schools.
Holladay said she understands how the older generations of Alabama historians — and even teachers from her era — accepted traditional Southern views on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
“We were removed from it, but not as far removed from it as we are today,” she said. “I couldn’t compare then to now. We see things very differently today.”
Holladay said she believes she progressed as a teacher, especially after undertaking an independent study under textbook author and professor Hamilton at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Hamilton, a former reporter for the Associated Press and Birmingham News, taught at several universities in Alabama before becoming a history professor at UAB. She changed the trajectory of state history textbooks, according to a biography published by Alabama News Center after her death in 2016. The biography states:
Hamilton’s school textbooks, written for fourth and ninth grade, presented more accurate interpretations of the state’s history than earlier ones. … Hamilton’s narrative gives a more realistic and accurate account of the reality of slavery.
Hamilton “focused on eliminating the vestiges of 19th century prejudicial interpretations of Alabama history, not only on the issue of slavery, but also in the almost total absence of Alabama women in the state’s previous histories,” the biography states.
Retired teacher Martha Mackay taught Alabama history in the fourth grade for the Jefferson County and Hoover school systems. But her experience was from 1990 to 2017, years after schools abandoned textbooks like “Know Alabama.”
Mackay said she taught a changed version of history from a textbook by Donald Dodd of Auburn University at Montgomery, including that the South fought the Civil War to preserve slavery.
Still, she said, she is embarrassed by the job she and her colleagues did in teaching racial issues.
“We just didn’t do a good job, relative to slavery, the whole civil rights (period),” she said. “So much of what I have learned has been (later in life) outside the classroom.”