How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South

One veteran Mississippi teacher is forgoing textbooks for the local archives.

A collage of pictures provided by the author
Chuck Yarborough / Everett Historical / vkilikov / Shutterstock / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

Robert Gleed was only 17 when, a few years before the start of the Civil War, he escaped from a Virginia slave owner. He was caught soon after near Columbus, Mississippi, and sold at an auction, and he didn’t gain his freedom until Union troops arrived in 1865. In the 10 years that followed, Gleed opened a general store; acquired 295 acres of farmland, three city lots, a home; and became one of the first black state senators in Mississippi.

On May 8 of this year, more than 150 years after 437,000 black Mississippians—the majority of the state at the time—gained their freedom, Dairian Bowles, a junior at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, told Gleed’s story. Dressed in a black waistcoat and a white shirt with a high collar, Bowles stood in front of Gleed’s marble tombstone in Sandfield Cemetery, Columbus’s historic burial ground for African Americans.

In front of about 200 visitors, Bowles told of how, a little more than a decade after emancipation, Gleed lost his political power, his store, and his home. In 1875, after his term as a state senator, Gleed ran for the position of sheriff. The day before the election, a mob of torch-carrying whites surged through downtown, killing four black men. Gleed survived only because a white friend helped him hide in his well. Soon after, white townspeople claimed that Gleed owed them money, auctioned off his store, and pocketed the profits.

Bowles’s performance was part of the African American history class taught by a 25-year veteran teacher at the school, Chuck Yarborough. Each year, Yarborough gives his students in his African American and U.S. history classes a list of people buried in Columbus’s two historic cemeteries—Sandfield and Friendship, the latter the resting place of many Confederate soldiers. Most of the people on the list have never been researched before, so students spend months poring over primary records in the town’s archives. Their final project is a performance written and directed by the students, and anywhere from 100 to 2,000 people from all over the state show up to see them.

Among the moss-covered tombstones, students give voice to white, black, Jewish, and immigrant Mississippians, who more than a century ago—much as Americans do now—argued about who deserves the right to citizenship. But rather than prioritizing the debates of powerful leaders and the outcomes of bloody battles, which is common in history curricula across the United States, these students share stories that explore how the small, daily choices and actions of Columbus residents made Mississippi—and by extension, the country—what it is today.

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelmingly agree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.

All this has motivated Yarborough to help his students explore the historical record; focus on primary sources, not textbooks; internalize, through performance, the stories of the people who lived through these times; and share their research with the community. He likes to paraphrase his favorite quote, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in his classes: “When women and men start to think, the first step in progress is taken.”

A sixth-generation Mississippian, Yarborough spent most of his childhood in Pass Christian, a small beach town on the Gulf Coast. Yarborough’s father drove to New Orleans every morning to work for Texaco as a geophysicist, while Yarborough’s mother raised five kids at home. In Yarborough’s telling, it was an idyllic childhood; he and his siblings went sailing, rode their bikes downtown to eat po’ boy sandwiches and play pinball, and spent hours reading books.

In elementary school, Yarborough became best friends with Otis Gates, who lived a few blocks away, and who was one of two African American students at the majority-white Catholic school both boys attended. In 1973, when Yarborough was a first grader, Gates invited him to his birthday party. A few moments after he arrived at Gates’s house, Yarborough realized that he was the only white kid in the large crowd of black children—even though Yarborough knew that Gates had invited all their white classmates.

Yarborough recalled this as one of the most formative moments of his youth, one that he often shares with his students. “I stayed the night at Otis’s all of the time, and he stayed the night at our house all of the time,” Yarborough told me. “But that day, it was highlighted to me that there was this big divide in our community. My entire career, I’ve been trying to step across that divide.”

While Yarborough and Gates were growing up, Mississippi became the center of one of the largest anti-integration movements in the country. In response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering the integration of public schools, white segregationist organizations opened what became known as “segregation academies.” These were private schools—in part funded by the government through what became known as vouchers—that opened between 1964 and 1972 for the children of white parents opposed to desegregation. Hundreds of such academies were established, and at least 35 survive in Mississippi, including the Heritage Academy, on the Confederate Drive in Columbus. The schools recently became the brief focus of the nation’s attention when the Jackson Free Press reported that Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith had attended one.

As Yarborough tried to understand the factors that fueled deep racial divisions in his state, he immersed himself in African American history. He majored in English at Vanderbilt University, and received his master’s degree from the University of Mississippi in southern studies, with a focus on black history and culture.

Since Yarborough first started working at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in 1994, he has taught students from all types of schools: former segregation academies, religious private schools, public schools, and charter schools. A public boarding school, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science teaches 248 students from all over the state who have come to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, computer courses, the arts, and humanities. In a state with the second-highest rate for black poverty in the country, and a public-school system in which nearly a third of all districts have resegregated in recent decades, all the students I talked to at the school cited their highly integrated classrooms as one of the most valuable parts of their academic experience. (Eighteen percent of the students are black, 11 percent are Asian, 11 percent are mixed, and 66 percent are white.)

Each year, Yarborough surveys his students on what they know about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The feedback from the more than 1,400 students he has taught has been consistent: Out of a class of 18 to 20 students, about five come in with some basic knowledge of the Civil War, and a few have studied Reconstruction. “You can’t understand American history without understanding Reconstruction,” Yarborough argued. “Students have to understand the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presents, and then steps backward that are taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy and the planter class being in control.”

Even though the U.S. history course for juniors in Mississippi is supposed to cover the period from 1877 on, Yarborough begins each year with the Civil War and Reconstruction. Students read Mississippi’s 1861 Ordinance of Secession, which, in Yarborough’s view, leaves little doubt that slavery played the key role in the Civil War. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” the document states. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Meanwhile, students start their research for what is known as the Tales From the Crypt project with primary sources—court and census records, diaries, family and business files, among others—using them to write a paper about an individual buried in Friendship or Sandfield Cemeteries.

This year, Erin Williams, a student from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, investigated and performed the life of Susan Casement Maer, a native of Australia who, in 1881, became one of Mississippi’s first women newspaper owners— the “editress” of the Columbus Dispatch, as records of that time identify her. Kaelon McNeece, a student from Brandon, a suburb of Jackson, researched J. G. Parsons, a Confederate soldier, which led to an exploration of undiagnosed PTSD following the war. Dairian Bowles—a student from Byhalia, a rural town in northern Mississippi, who performed the story of state Senator Gleed—also investigated the life of a progressive doctor, John H. Hand. He ended many cruel, ineffective medical practices in 19th-century Columbus—and then purchased nine enslaved women and men, as his practice earned him a sizable fortune.

The Tales From the Crypt project, which added research and community performances to the U.S. history curriculum, was started by Yarborough’s late colleague and mentor, Carl Butler, in 1990. In 2007, Yarborough founded the African American history course, for which students also research those buried in Sandfield and perform their stories as part of the Eighth of May Celebration of Emancipation—a yearly tribute that had fizzled out in Columbus in the 1970s and was later revived by Yarborough’s course.

As part of the African American history class this year, Edith Marie Green, a student from Oxford, a city in northern Mississippi, investigated the life of Allen L. Rabb, owner of Rabb’s Meat Market, started by Allen’s father in the post–Civil War years.* Other students researched historic records for William Isaac Mitchell, the president of Penny Savings Bank, the first African American–owned bank in Columbus, and Richard Littlejohn, the publisher of a local black newspaper in the 1880s, among others.

Green told me that this class was the first time she’d learned anything about Reconstruction, and she certainly hadn’t learned about black life during that period. “In my history classes, we covered slavery and Martin Luther King. That’s it,” she said.

Green, who is white, said she especially appreciated hearing the perspectives of her black classmates during frequent discussions that made connections between Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and contemporary issues of racism. “Black students encouraged white students to go beyond outrage over great injustices to think about what we can do to change things now,” she said. Helping more Americans recognize black history as part of U.S. history is a priority for Green. She plans to become a high-school history teacher someday, she told me.

Bowles described his performances of state Senator Gleed—along with the process of researching Dr. Hand’s life—as the highlights of his high-school experience. Spending time in the archives, Bowles told me, made him feel like a private investigator, caught up in the excitement of one court record he’d uncover leading to another, as small puzzle pieces of his research subject’s life fell into place. The contradiction Bowles uncovered—an innovative, progressive doctor who made medicine more humane, and a person who failed to see the inhumanity and cruelty of slavery—became the central question Bowles explored during his performance to a crowd of about 1,000 mostly white Columbus residents at Friendship Cemetery. “It was important for me to understand how common his views were and where his mindset came from,” Bowles reflected. “Developing an understanding doesn’t mean justifying or excusing someone’s actions.”

Yarborough told me that Bowles did what many Americans struggle to do when they consider the past—recognize the contributions of individuals without whitewashing their flaws and inconsistencies. “Human beings like there to be no shades of gray,” he said. “We want simplicity in history. We want either good or bad, just or unjust, right or wrong. And while that’s very satisfactory to us individually, any project in history that is going to reflect our world, and teach kids how to operate in our world, has to explore that complexity.”

Yarborough argues that reliance on textbooks, which compress complex events or individuals into one paragraph or page, is not an effective way to teach key moments in American history. Instead, students should have opportunities to research primary sources in the context of other historic accounts about the events.

Prior to performing the stories of Hand and Gleed, Bowles told me, he used to think that he didn’t like being onstage and tried to find every excuse to get out of performing. He ended up enjoying it more than anything he’s done in high school, and is now considering majoring in screenwriting and film in college. “I didn’t go into this project thinking, I’ll be helping the community understand something, but seeing people engage and react to my characters was really satisfying. It was a really important moment in my life.”

*This article originally mischaracterized Oxford as a suburb.

This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.