“For more than 100 years, the American educational system has revolved around four basic R’s—reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and racism,” historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote in Ebony magazine in 1967. “By sins of commission and omission, by words said but also by words not said, facts conveniently overlooked and images suppressed, the American school system has made the fourth R—racism—the ground of the traditional three-R fare.”
New York’s schools were no different. A 1957 report found a textbook on the city’s recommended list which, while roundly condemning its violence, said of the postwar Ku Klux Klan, “Its purposes were patriotic, but its methods cannot be defended.”
In 1960, four years before Trump graduated high school, Albert Alexander, a textbook analyst for the New York City Board of Education, complained that publishers had warped their coverage of the Civil War so their products could be sold in both the North and the South. He noted that four of the textbooks used in city schools only referred to the conflict as the “War Between the States,” the segregationist South’s preferred term.
In 1966, Irving Sloan, a New York social-studies teacher, published a study for the American Federation of Teachers reviewing how contemporary American history textbooks covered black history. He opened by observing that many publishers had improved their coverage in recent years. But he also qualified his praise of their progress, noting that “none of the texts have completely succeeded, and several are so far from the target that they invite suspicion.”
Sloan noted, for example, that even some newer textbooks “still cling to the romanticized versions of the happy slave life.” Abolitionism was mostly depicted as a solely white movement. “No text gives enough attention to the participation of Negroes in this struggle for their freedom,” he observed. Things got worse when students moved past the Civil War. “In analysis after analysis of the texts, the reader will find the statement that after Reconstruction ‘200-300 pages pass before we get a reference to the Negro,’” Sloan wrote. “This is why whites do not always ‘see’ Negroes. As Ralph Ellison puts it, they are ‘invisible.’ And the reason they are unseen is that they are left out from such a large part of American history.”
The quality of the textbooks reviewed by Sloan varied. He praised the junior-high text Land of the Free for its quality, which he partly credits to eminent black historian John Hope Franklin’s co-authorship. Others received more scathing treatments. Sloan’s critiques of a senior-level high-school history textbook titled Our Nation From Its Creation typify the most common errors he encountered.
In a section dealing with different opinions about the causes of the “War Between the States,” the authors include the opinion of ‘more and more Northerners and some Southerners … that slavery was a moral evil and had to go.” The text's presentation of the Southern response to the moral question is worth quoting in full: “Aren't our slaves much better off than your so-called free workers in the filthy factories of the North? One Southern writer suggested that the so-called free laborers of the North would be better off if the North turned them into slaves.”
Coming to the period after the war, the Reconstruction era, the authors discuss the condition of the Freedmen. A statement such as, “Some thought that now that they were free, life was going to be one long spree, without work,” is at best gratuitous and at worst unsupportable. But it remains consistent with much of the tone of this text's treatment of the Negro.
“Since the authors of the text are New York City teachers, it probably has wide use in the city,” Sloan concluded. “What is more, it probably has wide use in the South. Among high school texts, this gives one of the poorest treatments of the Negro encountered in our study.”