I have a question for parents of our students who are diligently working their way through Florida’s public school system right now: Do you have any idea what Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “anti-woke” agenda is doing to your children’s education? Do you think “sanitizing” American history is doing them, and our country, any favor?
I ask this question in all seriousness, because I have been there. In an earlier era, I went through St. Petersburg’s public school system — North Ward School and Mirror Lake Junior High — when the education I received was sorely deficient in a very critical way: I learned almost nothing about the racial history of the United States.
Yes, it was the 1940s and ‘50s, and I was lucky enough to go off to Woodberry Forest, an independent school in Virginia, for high school — St. Pete High, our only senior high in town then, was running a morning shift (7 a.m. to noon) and an afternoon shift (noon to 5 p.m.) of students through the building, and my father did not think my brother, John, and I could get a very good education there. So off to Woodberry Forest School we went. All would be corrected there, right?
Woodberry committed the same educational travesty that North Ward and Mirror Lake had done. When I graduated from high school, I was still almost totally ignorant about the racial history of my native South. I suspect if I had gone to a school north of the Mason-Dixon Line, this glaring hole in my education would have been at least partially filled, but the white South still drew the color line, and so did the schools, both public and private. Virginia and Florida were no different.
I managed to get into a good college, but I was lucky that the school I wanted to go to, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, did not give me their own exam on American history as a prerequisite for admission. If they had, I would have flunked it flat.
To be specific, I knew nothing about the realities of the institution of slavery in the United States. I knew nothing about the critical role slavery played in the coming of the Civil War. I knew nothing about the violent suppression of Black voters and office holders carried out by white paramilitary groups during Reconstruction. I knew nothing about the rise of racial segregation in the late 19th and early 20th century South. I knew nothing about the plague of lynching that gripped wide areas of the southern United States during these same years.
I still have vivid memories of the embarrassment I experienced when I took my first college class in American history.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
We were reading Benjamin Thomas’ “Abraham Lincoln: A Biography,” and I noted a passage drawn from Lincoln’s 1858 Charleston, Illinois, debate with Stephen A. Douglas in their spirited contest for a seat in the U.S. Senate. “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races,” Abraham Lincoln said, “… and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
When we discussed this in class, I had no idea that Douglas had launched a virulent racist attack on Lincoln for being excessively fond of the Negro and that Lincoln was trying to defend himself in an Illinois political environment that was profoundly racist. I paid no attention to Lincoln’s subsequent statements insisting that every man and woman, Black and white, had a right to enjoy the fruits of their own labor and that all members of society deserved to enjoy the most basic of human rights, the right to be free. I focused on one thing and one thing only: Lincoln’s apparent embrace of white supremacy. I used his words, in class, to defend the Jim Crow South of my own place and time: St. Petersburg, circa 1955.
I am still mortified by what I did in my college classroom on this occasion. But is it not possible that our own Florida sons and daughters might do something similar if they are deprived of the chance to learn the unvarnished facts of our history? They need to know what slavery truly was as well as the story of how Lincoln, that complicated man, destroyed the institution during the Civil War.
In short, if today’s students are to become the citizens we need to sustain our democracy, they need to know the good, the bad and the ugly about American history. They need to know how we have struggled with our demons and how we have managed, or not managed, to tame them. And they deserve to walk into their first college American history class and not embarrass themselves the way I did, back then, at Williams College, when I was 17 years old.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College and the author of “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”