Social Studies

Schools Are Failing to Teach the Truth About Slavery, the SPLC Says

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 01, 2018 7 min read
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Slavery on U.S. soil underpinned virtually every aspect of life in the Antebellum South. The North, too, depended on the wealth it generated, and its profits fueled westward expansion. Racist ideology grew up to justify slavery. It is the central cause of the bloody Civil War, and its legacy reverberates throughout public policy today.

Those are core, fundamental aspects of American history, ones that virtually all U.S. historians agree on. But most students are not being taught them in school, a damning report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, concludes.

Instead, what students are taught about slavery is fragmentary, without context, and worst of all, glossed over or sanitized, says the report, which was released this morning.

Slavery, it says, is taught generally without appropriate context, especially in the early grades, by focusing on resistance or escape, rather than the violence it wrought on black bodies and families. It’s taught as a Southern phenomenon. Slavery is virtually never considered alongside white supremacist ideology, which was explicitly created to justify slavery, the report asserts. In textbooks, the voices and varied experiences of slaves are generally excised; and, connections to topics like the Great Migration and the civil rights movement—or indeed, to recent events, like the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.,—are missing.

In all, the report comes as a stunning indictment of how the U.S. education system has approached the teaching of this important subject. One of its core themes is that American history is taught as a story of unstoppable progress and rights that have been wronged—despite troubling recent events, such as the rollback of portions of the Voting Rights Act, discrimination in the criminal justice system, and the continuing segregation of schools and neighborhoods.

“The most troubling finding is that usually there is no systematic approach to teaching this topic,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance. “They learn about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or Frederick Douglass, very early on as heroes who oppose slavery and they are not taught what slavery is, until 4th or 5th grade, and often in surprising ways. State standards are accepting of the premise that slavery is about property and is about a political controversy; they dehumanize it from the get-go.”

Ten Concepts

The report is based off of 10 key concepts drawn from the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, as well as surveys of high school seniors, social studies teachers, an analysis of state content standards, and a review of about a dozen high school history textbooks. It was shaped in part by an advisory panel of history and education scholars, who provided feedback on several drafts.

The 10 core concepts were crafted by historian Ira Berlin in his forward to the book Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, which were later used by Teaching Tolerance as the basis for thinking through this report. They are:

  • Slavery, which predated European settlement, was important to all of the colonial powers and existed in all of the European North American colonies.
  • Slavery and the slave trader were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and later, the United States.
  • Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  • “Slavery was an institution of power,” designed to create profit for the slaveholder and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  • Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  • The experience of slavery varied, depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding, and gender.
  • Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  • Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness and white supremacy was both a product of, and legacy of, slavery.
  • Enslaved and free people of African descent had a profound impact on American culture, producing leaders, and literary, artistic, and folk traditions, etc., that continue to influence the nation.
  • By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, we gain insight into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans created, thought, aspired to, and desired.

Students Aren’t Learning What Teachers Say They Teach

Most of those key tenets do not seem to be reaching students, the SPLC’s survey of students shows. In all of the concepts, less than 8 percent of students knew why Southern states seceded from the union; only 12 percent knew about the economic importance of slavery to the North; and only 18 percent could name an important result of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt.

See also: The Old South Rises Again in History Class

Yet a survey of teachers found that, for nine of the 10 key concepts, at least half of teachers surveyed said they covered that topic.

There is one caveat to this finding: The student survey is nationally representative, but the teacher one is a sample formed mostly of teachers who have used Teaching Tolerance in the past, so it’s possible that the Teaching Tolerance teachers do better overall in teaching about slavery than the average teacher. Nevertheless, the findings suggest that teachers often have an overly rosy idea of what their students have learned compared to what they taught on slavery.

In interviews with teachers, many expressed deep uncertainty about the topic. Some said they wanted to spare children its brutality or were concerned about age-appropriateness; others focused on stories of resistance. Teachers often worried about potentially terrifying black children or inducing guilt or defensiveness in white children, or generally having the topic becoming a racial flashpoint in their classrooms.

On the other hand, the report said, too many teachers reported still using simulations to teach about slavery—one New York teacher simulated the Middle Passage; others have held mock slave auctions in the class. Stories like these pop up not infrequently in the news, too, despite longstanding concerns that they can be traumatic for students.

State Standards and Textbooks Fall Well Short

The SPLC also reviewed 15 states’ social studies standards and their content on slavery, deeming them, politely, “timid.” None of the 15 states explicitly addressed white supremacy and how the ideology rose to justify slavery, and many were missing other important content.

Standards matter since these goals are generally what textbook manufacturers must “align” their texts with when they are crafting them. They are often quite puzzling in their incoherence: California requires students to learn about Harriet Tubman in grade 2 but doesn’t specifically mention slavery until grade 4, the SPLC says. Alabama lists “sectionalism” before “slavery” as the cause of the Civil War in two grades. North Carolina describes slavery as a “political issue” or “cultural conflict.” Of the 15 states, the SPLC deemed New Mexico’s the “flimsiest.”

Here’s a map showing how many of the 10 indicators each state lacks. The report goes into greater detail on which specific features were missing.

The authors also took a crack at the textbook industry, while acknowledging that that there is no public database listing the most commonly used history texts. It looked at about 12 books in all, aimed at secondary students. It rated each textbook on a 1-3 scale on each of the 10 principles. All the books fell short in some areas, the group concluded; the strongest text, from W. W. Norton, met 70 percent of the criteria. Worst of all were two state-specific textbooks, from Texas and Louisiana. Both got a score of 7 percent (which works out to between 3 to 4 points).

The SPLC’s recommendations on how to correct this are easy to list and difficult to put in place. They are: to improve instruction to align to the 10 key concepts, use historical documents to represent a diverse array of experiences of enslaved people, improve textbooks and standards, and strengthen curriculum.

All of those will take significant pressure from policymakers. And a big challenge to giving students an accurate accounting of slavery and its place in U.S. history is that it up-ends a powerfully convincing narrative.

“You think about the preamble of the Constitution, a ‘more perfect union'—it describes the way we teach American history. We were perfect at the beginning, and have become even more perfect since then,” Costello said. “These standards say that what we really have to remember is that we resisted it and overcame. But one of the big points is that slavery and racism grew up together. We ended slavery, but we did not end those racist ideas. They are here today.”

Image: The interior of a slave trader’s holding cells in Alexandria, Va., c. 1861. Credit: Library of Congress.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.