The first public school in North Carolina was created in 1840. Before the Civil War, those schools were reserved only for Whites. And then, four years after the war ended, the system was revived.
Segregated schools were the law in the state for much of the 20th century. And as you might imagine, the Civil War was taught much differently depending on the color of the students’ skin.
It’s about an hour into a hot, dusty school group tour of Stagville plantation, the historic site in Durham County. To this point, the juniors at Liberty Christian School have been polite, if a little bored and distracted, looking at the houses and grounds once owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family.
And then they come to the slave quarters. At the dawn of the Civil War, 900 slaves lived on this plantation in buildings like this one, a dark two-story wood and stone structure. The students are standing outside, staring at the bricks in the chimney. They were made by the slaves themselves, and the tour guide points out five small depressions in one of the bricks… the toes of a slave child’s foot.
Tour Guide: "There’s one right here, y’all can get a little closer if you want. You can touch it."
For a moment, the students stop sucking on the rock candy lollipops they bought earlier at the gift shop and fixate on the spot…
Student: "That’s cool."
And just like that, an accidental footprint made a century and a half ago brings Stagville alive for these students.
Hassan Everett is one of them. He says studying the Civil War helps him feel closer to his African-American ancestors, especially the slaves who fought for the Union.
Hassan Everett: "I’ll say we, weren’t paid as much. We still showed dedication and we still fought for what we believed in even though we were enslaved people. So that’s something that I took from that."
Hassan says he and his teacher got into a healthy in-class debate earlier in the year over which group – African-Americans or native Americans – were more persecuted by Whites.
That kind of classroom environment is a world away from what went on in Southern schools throughout much of the 20th century.
Howard Lee is the Executive Director of the Governor’s Education Cabinet. He’s also a graduate of Lithonia Colored High School in Georgia, later named the Bruce Street School, class of 1953.
Howard Lee: "I never sat at a new desk the entire 12 years I went to that school because we always got the hand-me-down desks from the white school. I never had a new textbook, because we always got the hand-me-down text books."
Lee says his school had great teachers, but he laments just the one week they spent each year on African-American history. His most memorable Civil War lesson came when his class visited the Cyclorama in nearby Atlanta.
Lee: "The upshot of that whole experience was that this war was fought to ensure that blacks remained in slavery. And that of course was the central understanding that left to looking at the Civil War."
Across town, the white students were likely learning something very different. Fitzhugh Brundage is a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill. He explains the narrative taught to white students across the south between 1920 and 1960.
Fitzhugh Brundage: "Well, they typically were taught the civil war was an unfortunate war brought about by the extremism of northern abolitionists and southern fire-eaters. And that if cooler minds had prevailed there never needed to be a civil war because slavery was pretty benign and it would have died out anyways out over time. And then the United States could have gotten on with the business of being a stronger more powerful nation without having to have endured the civil war."
Those narrow, parallel narratives of the Civil War existed until desegregation and school reform in the 1960s and 70s. And while textbooks are no longer filled with propaganda, the students are still not all that much closer to understanding the complex truth, the true brutality, the economic realities, and the longterm effects of the Civil War.
Brundage says it’s not really their fault.
Brundage: "We in the United States haven’t really come to grips with the Civil War anyway. Speaking more broadly. We prefer to have what I would call a very saccharine and even sanitized narrative of what the civil war was and what its consequences were."
Any help the public schools could offer to deepen students’ understanding of the Civil War is unlikely to come any time soon. To put it simply, in the race to reform education, US history is getting left behind.
In March, the North Carolina State Legislature eliminated the end—of-course test in US History, citing cost concerns. The federal government doesn’t ask for it to be tested, either, preferring to focus on science, technology and math.
That bothers Howard Lee.
Lee: "We have a saying in the educational arena, if it’s not tested, it’s not taught. I think we the legislature having made the unfortunate decision to no longer test in history, we’ll find it to be less emphasized going forward in the subject area."
The de-emphasis on history literacy will actually suffer a double hit. Recent budget cuts are likely to shrink the number of school field trips. And that means fewer chances for today’s students to put their own hands on history… like the footprint of a slave child, generations after she left it.