First Thanksgiving,
Red Eyes,
Invisibility of Racism

excerpted from the book

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

by James W. Loewen

Touchstone Books, 1995, paper

Michael Dorris
Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its victims in order to justify its history?

Howard Simpson

The Europeans were able to conquer America not because of their military genius, or their religious motivation, or their ambition, or their greed. They conquered it by waging unpremeditated biological warfare.

The scarcity of disease in the Americas was also partly attributable to the basic hygiene practiced by the region's inhabitants. Residents of northern Europe and England rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy, and rarely removed all of their clothing at one time, believing it immodest. The Pilgrims smelled bad to the Indians. Squanto "tried, without success, to teach them to bathe," according to Feenie Ziner, his biographer.

For all these reasons, the inhabitants of North and South America (like Australian aborigines and the peoples of the far-flung Pacific islands) were "a remarkably healthy race" before Columbus. Ironically, their very health proved their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically or through childhood diseases, to the microbes that Europeans and Africans would bring to them.

In 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed, the process started in southern New England. For decades, British and French fishermen had fished off the Massachusetts coast. After filling their hulls with cod, they would go ashore to lay in firewood and fresh water and perhaps capture a few Indians to sell into slavery in Europe. It is likely that these fishermen transmitted some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made the Black Death pale by comparison. Some historians think the disease was the bubonic plague; others suggest that it was viral hepatitis, smallpox, chicken pox, or influenza.

Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. The Indian societies lay devastated. Only "the twentieth person is scarce left alive," wrote Robert Cushman, a British eyewitness, recording a death rate unknown in all previous human experience. Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages and fled, often to a neighboring tribe. Because they carried the infestation with them, Indians died who had never encountered a white person. Howard Simpson describes what the Pilgrims saw: "Villages lay in ruins because there was no one to tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them."

During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. European Americans also contracted smallpox and the other maladies, to be sure, but they usually recovered, including, in a later century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington." Native Americans usually died. The impact of the epidemics on the two cultures was profound. The English Separatists, already seeing their lives as part of a divinely inspired morality play, found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "miraculous." In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: "But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection ', God the Original Real Estate Agent!

Many Indians likewise inferred that their god had abandoned them. Robert Cushman reported that "those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted." After a smallpox epidemic the Cherokee "despaired so much that they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe." 25 After all, neither Indians nor Pilgrims had access to the germ theory of disease. Indian healers could supply no cure; their medicines and herbs offered no relief. Their religion provided no explanation. That of the whites did. Like the Europeans three centuries before them, many Indians surrendered to alcohol, converted to Christianity, or simply killed themselves.

These epidemics probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century. Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Indian challenge.

The very death rates that some historians and geographers now find I hard to believe, the Pilgrims knew to be true. For example, William Bradford described how the Dutch, rivals of Plymouth, traveled to an Indian village in Connecticut to trade. "But their enterprise failed, for it pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial . . ." This is precisely the 95 percent mortality that McEvedy rejected. On the opposite coast, the Native population of California sank from 300,000 in 1769 (by which time it had already been cut in half by various Spanish-borne diseases) to 30,000 a century later, owing mainly to the gold rush, which brought "disease, starvation, homicide, and a declining birthrate."

For a century after Catlin, historians and anthropologists "overlooked" the evidence offered by the Pilgrims and other early chroniclers. Beginning with P. M. Ashburn in 1947, however, research has established more accurate estimates based on careful continent-wide compilations of small-scale studies of first contact and on evidence of early plagues. Most current estimates of the precontact population of the United States and Canada range from ten to twenty million.

After contact with Europeans and Africans, Indian societies changed rapidly. Native Americans took into their cultures not only guns, blankets, and kettles, but also new foods, ways of building houses, and ideas from Christianity. Most American history textbooks tell about the changes in only one group, the Plains Indians. Eight of the twelve textbooks I surveyed mention the rapid efflorescence of this colorful culture after the Spaniards introduced the horse to the American West. It is an exhilarating example of syncretism-blending elements of two different cultures to create something new.

The transformation in the Plains cultures, however, was only the tip of the cultural-change iceberg. An even more profound metamorphosis occurred as Europeans linked Native peoples to the developing world economy. Yet textbooks make no mention of this process, despite the fact that it continues to affect formerly independent cultures in the last half of our century. In the early 1970s, for example, Lapps in Norway replaced their sled dogs with snowmobiles, only to find themselves vulnerable to Arab oil embargoes. The process seems inevitable, hence perhaps is neither to be praised nor decried-but it should not be ignored, because it is crucial to understanding how Europeans took over America.

In Atlantic North America, members of Indian nations possessed a variety of sophisticated skills, from the ability to weave watertight baskets to an understanding of how certain plants can be used to reduce pain. At first, Native Americans traded corn, beaver, fish, sassafras, and other goods with the French, Dutch, and British, in return for axes, blankets, cloth, beads, and kettles. Soon, however, Europeans persuaded Natives to specialize in the fur and slave trades. Native Americans were better hunters and trappers than Europeans, and with the guns the Europeans sold them, they became better still. Other Native skills began to atrophy. Why spend hours making a watertight basket when in one-tenth the time you could trap enough beavers to trade for a kettle? Even agriculture, which the Native Americans had shown to the Europeans, declined, because it became easier to trade for food than to grow it. Everyone acted in rational self-interest in joining such a system-that is, Native Americans were not mere victims-because everyone's standard of living improved, at least in theory.

Some of the rapid changes in eastern Indian societies exemplify syncretism. When the Iroquois combined European guns and Native American tactics to smash the Hurons, they controlled their own culture and chose which elements of European culture to incorporate, which to modify, which to ignore. Native Americans learned how to repair guns, cast bullets, build stronger forts, and fight to annihilate. Native Americans also became well known as linguists, often speaking two European languages (French, English, Dutch, or Spanish) and at least two Indian languages. British colonists sometimes used Natives as interpreters when dealing with the Spanish or French, not just with other Native American nations.

These developments were not all matters of happy economics and voluntary syncretic cultural transformation, however. Natives were operating under a military and cultural threat, and they knew it. They quickly deduced that European guns were more efficient than their bows and arrows. Europeans soon realized that trade goods could be used to win and maintain political alliances with Indian nations. To deal with the new threat and because whites "demanded institutions reflective of their own with which to relate," many Native groups strengthened their tribal governments. Chiefs acquired power they had never had before. These governments often ruled unprecedentedly broad areas, because the heightened warfare and the plagues had wiped out smaller tribes or caused them to merge with larger ones for protection. Large nations became ethnic melting pots, taking in whites and blacks as well as other Indians. New confederations and nations developed, such as the Creeks, Seminoles, and Lumbees. The tribes also became more male-dominated, in imitation of Europeans or because of the expanded importance of war skills in their cultures.

Tribes that were closest to the Europeans got guns first, guns that could be trained on interior peoples who had not yet acquired any. Suddenly some nations had a great military advantage over others. The result was an escalation of Indian warfare. Native nations had engaged in conflict before Europeans came, of course. Tribes rarely fought to the finish, however. Some tribes did not want to take over the lands belonging to other nations, partly because each had its own sacred sites. For a nation to exterminate its neighbors was difficult anyway, since all enjoyed the same level of military technology. Now all this changed. European powers deliberately increased Indian warfare by playing one nation off against another. The Spanish, for example, used a divide-and conquer strategy to defeat the Aztecs in Mexico. In Scotland and Ireland, the English had played tribes against one another to extend British rule. Now they did the same in North America.

For many tribes the motive for the increased combat was the enslavement of other Indians to sell to the Europeans for more guns and kettles. As northern tribes specialized in fur, certain southern tribes specialized in people. Some Native Americans had enslaved each other long before Europeans arrived. Now Europeans vastly expanded Indian slavery. Colonists in South Carolina paid nearby Indian nations in guns, ammunition, and other goods, which enabled them to enslave interior nations as far west as Arkansas.

The Europeans' enslavement of Native Americans has a long history. Textbooks used in elementary schools tell that Ponce de Leon went to Florida to seek the mythical fountain of youth; they do not say that his main business was to capture slaves for Hispaniola. In New England, Indian slavery led directly to African slavery: the first blacks imported there, in 1638, were brought from the West Indies to be exchanged for Native Americans from Connecticut. On the eve of the New York City slave rebellion of 1712, in which Native and African slaves united, about one resident in four was enslaved and one slave in four was Indian. A 1730 census of South Kingston, Rhode Island, showed 935 whites, 333 African slaves, and 223 Native American slaves.

The center of Native American slavery, like African American slavery, was South Carolina. Its population in 1708 included 3,960 free whites, 4,100 African slaves, 1,400 Indian slaves, and 120 indentured servants, presumably white. These numbers do not reflect the magnitude of Native slavery, however, because they omit the export trade. From Carolina, as from New England, colonists sent Indian slaves (who might escape) to the West Indies (where they could never escape), in exchange for black slaves. Charleston shipped more than 10,000 Natives in chains to the West Indies in one year! Further west, so many Pawnee Indians were sold to whites that Pawnee became the name applied in the plains to all slaves, whether they were of Indian or African origin. On the West Coast, Pierson Reading, a manager of John Sutter's huge grant of Indian land in central California, extolled the easy life he led in 1844: "The Indians of California make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the south." In the Southwest, whites enslaved Navajos and Apaches right up to the middle of the Civil War.

Intensified warfare and the slave trade rendered stable settlements no longer safe, helping to deagriculturize Native Americans. To avoid being targets for capture, Indians abandoned their cornfields and their villages and began to live in smaller settlements from which they could more easily escape to the woods. Ultimately, they had to trade with Europeans even for food. As Europeans learned from Natives what to grow and how to grow it, they became less dependent upon Indians and Indian technology, while Indians became more dependent upon Europeans and European technology. Thus what worked for the Native Americans in the short run worked against them in the long. In the long run, it was Indians who were enslaved, Indians who died, Indian technology that was lost, Indian cultures that fell apart. By the time the pitiful remnant of the Massachuset tribe converted to Christianity and joined the Puritans' "praying Indian towns," they did so in response to an invading culture that told them their religion was wrong and Christianity was right. This process exemplifies what anthropologists call cultural imperialism. Even the proud Plains Indians, whose syncretic culture combined horses and guns from the Spanish with Native art, religion, and hunting styles, showed the effects of cultural imperialism: the Sioux word for white man, wasichu, meant "one who has everything good."

African Americans frequently fled to Indian societies to escape bondage. What did whites find so alluring? According to Benjamin Franklin, "All their government is by Counsel of the Sages. There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment." Probably foremost, the lack of hierarchy in the Native societies in the eastern United States attracted the admiration of European observers. Frontiersmen were taken with the extent to which Native Americans enjoyed freedom as individuals. Women were also accorded more status and power in most Native societies than in white societies of the time, which white women noted with envy in captivity narratives. Although leadership was substantially hereditary in some nations, most Indian societies north of Mexico were much more democratic than Spain, France, or even England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "There is not a Man in the Ministry of the Five Nations, who has gain'd his Office, otherwise than by Merit," waxed Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York in 1727. "Their Authority is only the Esteem of the People, and ceases the Moment that Esteem is lost." Colden applied to the Iroquois terms redolent of "the natural rights of mankind": "Here we see the natural Origin of all Power and Authority among a free People."

Indeed, Native American ideas may be partly responsible for our democratic institutions. We have seen how Native ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality found their way to Europe to influence social philosophers such as Thomas More, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. These European thinkers then influenced Americans such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison. In recent years historians have debated whether Indian ideas may also have influenced our democracy more directly. Through 150 years of colonial contact, the Iroquois League stood before the colonies as an object lesson in how to govern a large domain democratically. The terms used by Lt. Gov. Colden find an echo in our Declaration of Independence fifty years later.

In the 1740s the Iroquois wearied of dealing with several often bickering English colonies and suggested that the colonies form a union similar to the league. In 1754 Benjamin Franklin, who had spent much time among the Iroquois observing their deliberations, pleaded with colonial leaders to consider the Albany Plan of Union: "It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies."

The colonies rejected the plan. But it was a forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery. In 1775 Congress formulated a speech to the Iroquois, signed by John Hancock, that quoted Iroquois advice from 1744. "The Six Nations are a wise people," Congress wrote, "let us harken to their council and teach our children to follow it."

The struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history. Until the end of the nineteenth century, cotton- planted, cultivated, harvested, and ginned by slaves-was by far our most important export. Our graceful antebellum homes, in the North as well as in the South, were built largely by slaves or from profits derived from the slave and cotton trades. Black-white relations became the central issue in the Civil War, which killed almost as many Americans as died in all our other wars combined. Black-white relations was the principal focus of Reconstruction after the Civil War; America's failure to allow African Americans equal rights led eventually to the struggle for civil rights a century later.

The subject also pops up where we least suspect it-at the Alamo, throughout the Seminole Wars, even in the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri. Studs Terkel is right: race is our "American obsession." Since those first Africans and Spaniards landed on the Carolina shore in 1526, our society has repeatedly been torn apart and sometimes bound together by this issue of black-white relations.

Over the years white America has told itself varying stories about the enslavement of blacks. In each of the last two centuries America's most popular novel was set in slavery-Uncle Toms Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The two books tell very different stories: Uncle Toms Cabin presents slavery as an evil to be opposed, while Gone with the Wind suggests that slavery was an ideal social structure whose passing is to be lamented. Until the civil rights movement, American history textbooks in this century pretty much agreed with Mitchell.

Americans seem perpetually startled at slavery. Children are shocked I to learn that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg say that many visitors are surprised to learn that slavery existed there-in the heart of plantation Virginia! Very few adults today realize that our society has been slave much longer than it has been free. Even fewer know that slavery was important in the North, too, until after the Revolutionary War. The first colony to legalize slavery was not Virginia but Massachusetts. In 1720, of New York City's population of seven thousand, 1,600 were African Americans, most of them slaves. Wall Street was the marketplace where owners could hire out their slaves by the day or week.

Certainly the Founding Fathers never created one. "Popular modern depictions of Washington and Jefferson are utterly at variance with their lives as eighteenth-century slave-holding planters." Textbooks play their part by minimizing slavery in the lives of the founders ... authors cannot bear to reveal anything bad about our heroes. Nevertheless almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners.

In real life the Founding Fathers and their wives wrestled with slavery Textbooks canonize Patrick Henry for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Not one tells us that eight months after delivering the speech he ordered "diligent patrols" to keep Virginia slaves from accepting the British offer of freedom to those who would join their side. Henry wrestled with the contradiction, exclaiming, "Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!" Almost no one would today, because only two of the twelve textbooks, Land of Promise and The American Adventure, even mention the inconsistency. Henry's understanding of the discrepancy between his words and his deeds never led him to act differently, to his slaves' sorrow. Throughout the Revolutionary period he added slaves to his holdings, and even at his death, unlike some other Virginia planters, he freed not a one. Nevertheless Triumph of the American Nation quotes Henry calling slavery "as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty," without ever mentioning that he held slaves. American Adventures devotes three whole pages to Henry, constructing a fictitious melodrama in which his father worries, "How would he ever earn a living?" Adventures then tells how Henry failed at storekeeping, "tried to make a living by raising tobacco," "started another store," "had three children as well as a wife to support," "knew he had to make a living in some way," "so he decided to become a lawyer." The student who reads this chapter and later learns that Henry grew wealthy from the work of scores of slaves has a right to feel hoodwinked.

Even more embarrassing is the case of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. American history textbooks use several tactics to harmonize the contradiction between Jefferson's assertion that everyone has an equal right to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" and his enslavement of 175 human beings at the time he wrote those words. Jefferson's slaveholding affected almost everything he did, from his opposition to internal improvements to his foreign policy. Nonetheless, half of our textbooks never note that Jefferson owned slaves. Life and Liberty offers a half-page minibiography of Jefferson, revealing that he was "shy," "stammered," and "always worked hard at what he did." Elsewhere Life contrasts Jefferson's political beliefs with Alexander Hamilton's and supplies six paragraphs about "Jeffersonian Changes" of Federalist policies, noting that Jefferson refused to wear a wig, repealed a whiskey tax, and walked rather than rode in his inaugural parade. Life and Liberty says nothing about Jefferson and slavery, however. American History offers six different illustrations of the man for us to admire but makes no mention of his slaveholding. The Challenge of Freedom mentions Jefferson on sixteen different pages but never in the context of slavery.

Textbooks stress that Jefferson was a humane master, privately tormented by slavery and opposed to its expansion, not the type to destroy families by selling slaves. In truth, by 1820 Jefferson has become an ardent advocate of the expansion of slavery to the western territories. And he never let his ambivalence about slavery affect his private life. Jefferson was an average master who had his slaves whipped and sold into the Deep South as examples, to induce other slaves to obey. By 1822, Jefferson owned 267 slaves. During his long life, of hundreds of different slaves he owned, he freed only three, and five more at his death -all blood relatives of his.

Another textbook tactic to minimize Jefferson's slaveholding is to admit it but emphasize that others did no better. "Jefferson revealed himself as a man of his times," states Land of Promise. Well, what were those times? Certainly most white Americans in the 1770s were racist. Race relations were in flux, however, due to the Revolutionary War and to its underlying ideology about the rights of mankind that Jefferson, among others, did so much to spread. Five thousand black soldiers fought alongside whites in the Continental Army, "with courage and skill," according to Triumph of the American Nation. In reality, of course, some fought "with courage and skill," like some white recruits, and some failed to fire their guns and ran off, like some white recruits. But because these men fought in integrated units for the most part and received equal pay, their existence in itself helped decrease white racism.

Moreover, the American Revolution is one of those moments in our history when the power of ideas made a real difference. "In contending for the birthright of freedom," said a captain in the army, "we have learned to feel for the bondage of others." Abigail Adams wrote her husband in 1774 to ask how we could "fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have." The contradiction between his words and his slaveowning embarrassed Patrick Henry, who offered only a lame excuse-"I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them"-and admitted, "I will not, I cannot justify it." Other options were available to planters. Some, including George Washington valued consistency more than Henry or Jefferson and freed their slaves outright or at least in their wills. Other slaveowners freed their male slaves to fight in the colonial army, collecting a bounty for each one who enlisted. In the first two decades after the Revolution, the number of free blacks in Virginia soared tenfold, from 2,000 in 1780 to 20,000 in 1800. Most Northern states did away with slavery altogether. Thus Thomas Jefferson lagged behind many whites of his times in the actions he took with regard to slavery.

Manumission gradually flagged, however, because most of the white Southerners who, like Jefferson, kept their slaves, grew rich. Their neighbors thought well of them, as people often do of those richer than themselves. To a degree the ideology of the upper class became the ideology of the whole society, and as the Revolution receded, that ideology increasingly justified slavery. Jefferson himself spent much of his slave-earned wealth on his mansion at Monticello and on books that he later donated to the University of Virginia; these expenditures became part of his hallowed patrimony, giving history yet another reason to remember him kindly.

Other views are possible, however. In 1829, three years after Jefferson's death, David Walker, a black Bostonian, warned members of his race that they should remember Jefferson as their greatest enemy. "Mr. Jefferson's remarks respecting us have sunk deep into the hearts of millions of whites, and never will be removed this side of eternity." For the next hundred years, the open white supremacy of the Democratic Party, Jefferson's political legacy to the nation, would bear out the truth of Walker's warning.

Textbooks are in good company: the Jefferson Memorial, too, whitewashes its subject. On its marble walls a carved panel proclaims Jefferson's boast, "I have sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men," without ever mentioning his participation in racial slavery. Perhaps asking a marble memorial to tell the truth is demanding too much. Should history textbooks similarly be a shrine, however? Should they encourage students to worship Jefferson? Or should they help students understand him, wrestle with the problems he wrestled with, grasp his accomplishments, and also acknowledge his failures?

The idealistic spark in our Revolution, which caused Patrick Henry such verbal discomfort, at first made the United States a proponent of democracy around the world. However, slavery and its concomitant ideas, which legitimated hierarchy and dominance, sapped our Revolutionary idealism. Most textbooks never hint at this clash of ideas, let alone at its impact on our foreign policy.

After the Revolution, many Americans expected our example would inspire other peoples. It did. Our young nation got its first chance to help in the 1790s, when Haiti revolted against France. Whether a president owned slaves seems to have determined his policy toward the second independent nation in the hemisphere. George Washington did, so his administration loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the French planters in Haiti to help them suppress their slaves. John Adams did not, and his administration gave considerable support to the Haitians. Jefferson's presidency marked a general retreat from the idealism of the Revolution. Like other slaveowners, Jefferson preferred a Napoleonic colony to a black republic in the Caribbean. In 1801 he reversed U.S. policy toward Haiti and secretly gave France the go-ahead to reconquer the island. In so doing, the United States not only betrayed its heritage, but also acted against its own self-interest. For if France had indeed been able to retake Haiti, Napoleon would have maintained his dream of an American empire. The United States would have been hemmed in by France to its west, Britain to its north, and Spain to its south. But planters in the United States were scared by the Haitian Revolution. They thought it might inspire slave revolts here (which it did). When Haiti won despite our flip-flop, the United States would not even extend it diplomatic recognition, lest its ambassador inflame our slaves "by exhibiting in his own person an example of successful revolt," in the words of a Georgia senator. Five of the twelve textbooks mention how Haitian resistance led France to sell us its claim to Louisiana, but none tells of our flip-flop. Indeed, no textbook ever makes any connection between slavery and U.S. foreign policy.

Racial slavery also affected our policy toward the next countries in the Americas to revolt, Spain's colonies. Haiti's example inspired them to seek independence, and the Haitian government gave Simon Bolivar direct aid. Our statesmen were ambivalent, eager to help boot a European power out of the hemisphere but worried by the racially mixed rebels doing the booting. Some planters wanted our government to replace Spain as the colonial power, especially in Cuba. Jefferson suggested annexing Cuba. Fifty years later, diplomats in the Franklin Pierce administration signed the Ostend Manifesto, which proposed that the United States buy or take the island from Spain. Slaveowners, still obsessed with Haiti as a role model, thus hoped to prevent Cuba's becoming a second Haiti, with "flames [that might] extend to our own neighboring shores," in the words of the Manifesto. In short, slavery prompted the United States to have imperialist designs on Latin America rather than visions of democratic liberation for the region.

Slavery affected our foreign policy in still other ways. The first requirement of a slave society is secure borders. We do not like to think of the United States as a police state, a nation like East Germany that people had to escape from, but the slaveholding states were just that. Indeed, after the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which declared "A Negro had no rights a white man was bound to respect," thousands of free African Americans realized they could not be safe even in Northern states and fled to Canada, Mexico, and Haiti. Slaveholders dominated our foreign policy until the Civil War. They were always concerned about our Indian borders and made sure that treaties with Native nations stipulated that Indians surrender all African Americans and return any runaways.

The victors of the Civil War executed but one Confederate officeholder, Henry Wirz, notorious commandant of Andersonville prison, while the losers murdered hundreds of officeholders and other Unionists, white and black. In Hinds County, Mississippi, alone, whites killed an average of one African American a day, many of them servicemen, during Confederate Reconstruction-the period from 1865 to 1867 when ex-Confederates ran the governments of most Southern states. In Louisiana in the summer and fall of 1868, white Democrats killed 1,081 persons, mostly African Americans and white Republicans. In one judicial district in North Carolina, a Republican judge counted 700 beatings and 12 murders. Moreover, violence was only the most visible component of a broader pattern of white resistance to black progress.

Attacking education was an important element of the white supremacists' program. "The opposition to Negro education made itself felt everywhere in a combination not to allow the freedmen any room or building in which a school might be taught," said Gen. O. O. Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau. "In 1865, 1866, and 1867 mobs of the baser classes at intervals and in all parts of the South occasionally burned school buildings and churches used as schools, flogged teachers or drove them away, and in a number of instances murdered them."

Focusing on white racism is even more central to understanding the period Rayford Logan called "the nadir of American race relations": the years between 1890 and 1920, when African Americans were again put back into second-class citizenship. During this time white Americans, North and South, joined hands to restrict black civil and economic rights. Perhaps because the period was marked by such a discouraging increase in white racism, ten of the twelve textbooks ignore the nadir. The finest coverage, in American History, summarizes the aftermath of Reconstruction in a section entitled "The Long Night Begins." "After the Compromise of 1877 the white citizens of the North turned their backs on the black citizens of the South. Gradually the southern states broke their promise to treat blacks fairly. Step by step they deprived them of the right to vote and reduced them to the status of second-class citizens." American History then spells out the techniques-restrictions on voting, segregation in public places, and Iynchings-which southern whites used to maintain white supremacy.

Triumph of the American Nation on the other hand, sums up in these bland words: "Reconstruction left many major problems unsolved and created new and equally urgent problems. This was true even though many forces in the North and the South continued working to reconcile the two sections." These sentences are so vague as to be content-free. Frances Fitzgerald used an earlier version of this passage to attack what she called the "problems" approach to American history. "These 'problems' seem to crop up everywhere," she deadpanned. "History in these texts is a mass of problems." Five hundred pages later in Triumph, when the authors reach the civil rights movement, race relations again becomes a "problem." The authors make no connection between the failure of the United States to guarantee black civil rights in 1877 and the need for a civil rights movement a century later. Nothing ever causes anything. Things just happen.

In fact, during Reconstruction and the nadir, a battle raged for the soul of the Southern white racist and in a way for that of the whole nation. There is a parallel in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II, a battle for the soul of the German people, a battle which Nazism lost (we hope). But in the United States, as American History tells, racism won. Between 1890 and 1907 every Southern and border state "legally" disfranchised the vast majority of its African American voters. Lynchings rose to an all-time high. In 1896 the Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v Ferguson. No textbook explains the rationale of segregation, which is crucial to understanding its devastating effect on black and white psyches.

During the nadir, segregation increased everywhere. Jackie Robinson was not the first black player in major league baseball. Blacks had played in the major leagues in the nineteenth century, but by 1889 whites had forced them out. In 1911 the Kentucky Derby eliminated black jockeys after they won fifteen of the first twenty-eight derbies. Particularly in the South, whites attacked the richest and most successful African Americans, just as they had the most acculturated Native Americans, so upward mobility offered no way out for blacks but only made them more of a target. In the North as well as in the South, African-Americans from skilled occupations and even unskilled jobs such as postal carriers. Eventually our system of segregation spread to South Africa, to Bermuda, and even to European-controlled enclaves in China.

American popular culture evolved to rationalize whites' retraction of civil and political rights from African Americans. The Bronx Zoo exhibited an African behind bars, like a gorilla. Theatrical productions of Uncle Toms Cabin played throughout the nadir, but since the novel's indictment of slavery was no longer congenial to an increasingly racist white society, rewrites changed Uncle Tom from a martyr who gave his life to protect his people into a sentimental dope who was loyal to kindly masters. In the black community, Uncle Tom eventually came to mean an African American without integrity who sells out his people's interests. In the 1880s and 1890s, minstrel shows featuring bumbling, mislocuting whites in blackface grew wildly popular from New England to California. By presenting heavily caricatured images of African Americans who were happy on the plantation and lost and incompetent off it, these shows demeaned black ability. Minstrel songs such as "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "Old Black Joe," and "My Old Kentucky Home" told whites that Harriet Beecher Stowe got Uncle Tom's Cabin all wrong: blacks really liked slavery. Second-class citizenship was appropriate for such a sorry people.

Textbooks abandoned their idealistic presentations of Reconstruction in favor of the Confederate myth, for if blacks were inferior, then the historical period in which they enjoyed equal rights must have been dominated by wrong-thinking Americans. Vaudeville continued the portrayal of silly, Iying, chicken-stealing black idiots. So did early silent movies. Some movies made more serious charges against African Americans: D. W. Grifffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation showed them obsessed with interracial sex and debased by corrupt white carpetbaggers.

In politics, the white electorate had become so racist by 1892 that the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, won the White House partly by tarring Republicans with their attempts to guarantee civil rights to African Americans, thereby conjuring fears of "Negro domination" in the Northern as well as Southern white mind. From the Civil War to the end of the century, not a single Democrat in Congress, representing the North or the South, ever voted in favor of any civil rights legislation. The Supreme Court was worse: its segregationist decisions from 1896 (Plessy) through 1927 (Rice v. Gong Lum, which barred Chinese from white schools) told the nation that whites were the master race. We have seen how Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912 and proceeded to segregate the federal government. Aided by Birth of a Nation, which opened in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan rose to its zenith, boasting over a million members. The KKK openly dominated the state government of Indiana for a time, and it proudly inducted Pres. Warren G. Harding as a member in a White House ceremony. During the Wilson and Harding administrations, perhaps one hundred race riots took place, more than in any other period since Reconstruction. White mobs killed African Americans across the United States. Some of these events, like the 1919 Chicago riot, are well known. Others, such as the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which whites dropped dynamite from airplanes onto a black ghetto, killing more than 75 people and destroying more than 1,100 homes, have completely vanished from our history books.

It is almost unimaginable how racist the United States became during and just after the nadir. Mass attacks by whites wiped out or terrorized black communities in the Florida Keys, in Springfield, Illinois, and in the Arkansas Delta, and were an implicit, ever-present threat to every black neighborhood in the nation. Some small communities in the Midwest and West became "sundown" towns, informally threatening African Americans with death if they remained overnight. African Americans were excluded from juries throughout the South and in many places in the North, which usually meant they could forget about legal redress even for obvious wrongs like assault, theft, or arson by whites. Lynchings offer evidence of how defenseless blacks were, for the defining characteristic of a lynching is that the murder takes place in public, so everyone knows who did it, yet the crime goes unpunished. During the nadir lynchings took place as far north as Duluth. Once again, as Dred Scott had proclaimed in 1857, "a Negro had no rights a white man was bound to respect." Every time African Americans interacted with European Americans, no matter how insignificant the contact, they had to be aware of how they presented themselves, lest they give offense by looking someone in the eye, forgetting to say "sir," or otherwise stepping out of "their place." Always, the threat of overwhelming force lay just beneath the surface.

The nadir left African Americans in a dilemma. An "exodus" to form new black communities in the West did not lead to real freedom. Migration north led only to segregated urban ghettoes. Concentrating on Booker T. Washington's plan for economic improvement while foregoing civil and political rights could not work, because economic gains could not be maintained without civil and political rights. "Back to Africa" was not practicable.

Many African Americans lost hope; family instability and crime increased. This period of American life, not slavery, marked the beginning of what some social scientists have called the "tangle of pathology" in African American society. Indeed, some historians date low black morale to even later periods, such as the great migration to Northern cities (1918-70), the Depression (1929-39), or changes in urban life and occupational structure after World War II. Unfortunately, no textbook discusses the changing levels of white racism or black reaction in any of these periods. In any event this tangle was the result, not the cause, of the segregation and discrimination African Americans faced. Black jockeys and mail carriers were shut out, not because they were inadequate, but because they succeeded.

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Index of Website

Home Page