Vanderbilt denames Confederate Hall, and what I learned about my 7th grade Virginia history textbook

Vanderbilt University has just repaid the Daughters of the Confederacy their $50K 1935 donation, plus $1.15M in interest, and has denamed their “Confederate Hall”.

On the topic of what denaming controversies like UO’s over Deady Hall teach us, here’s what I’ve learned, starting with an illustration and quote from my 7th grade Virginia history textbook:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes . . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members . . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other …  The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked . . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole

In 1972, when I was 13 and in 7th grade at Buford Junior High School in Charlottesville, Virginia, we had a year of Virginia history. Every 7th grade class in Virginia used the same textbook, provided by the state.

This was only nine years after Charlottesville’s public schools finally reopened after Governor Harry Byrd and his Democratic machine’s “massive resistance” had closed them in response to court ordered integration. Byrd’s followers had replaced them with private all-white “segregation academies” housed in churches and private buildings, sometimes supported by public funds. One of the segregated Charlottesville academies was the Rock Hill Academy:

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From a 2013 C’ville news story:

Lane was Charlottesville’s public high school. Rock Hill was a private school created to avoid integration….

“We were not racist. We were not violent. We just were ignorant. We didn’t know better and we didn’t realize that we were the start of history in the Virginia area,” said Pat Jensen, a graduate of Rock Hill’s class of 1963.

“We did what Mom and Daddy told us to do,” added Helen Hatzenbeler, Lane Class of ’63 Graduate and chair of the reunion. “Most of us grew up in ‘Leave it to Beaver’ homes.”

Students scattered to different places when their school closed. In addition to private schools, some students attended schools in counties relatives lived in or other situations. Before going to Rock Hill, Jensen attended classes held in churches for a period.

The Byrd machine was finally defeated by Republican Linwood Holton, who pointedly bused his children – including Anne Holton, now the wife of Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine – to the newly integrated Richmond public schools. Yes, Republicans were once on the right side of fights like this, and Democrats were on the wrong side.

Our teacher was new in town. He made us read the official textbook, but along the way he taught us that plantation life was not “happy and prosperous” for everyone, and that not everyone called the Civil War the “War for State’s Rights”. He used books he brought in himself, and magazine and newspaper articles he’d retyped and duplicated in blue with a mimeograph.

I still remember the smell, and I think I had an understanding of how careful he had to be. He knew many of his white students would have gone to the segregated academies, and that many of their parents had supported Byrd. So while we read about Brown v. Topeka, he said nothing about Charlottesville’s own recent history. Looking back I can just imagine how badly he must have wanted to teach it.

Ours was the last year that textbook was used. I don’t know what replaced it, but I wonder if the students afterwards learned as much as we did – about Virginia’s history, and about how badly some people want to control what you learn and how you think.

I never knew the textbook’s own history. This excellent story in The Daily Beast, inspired by the Vanderbilt controversy, and from which the illustration and the quote above are taken, explains the role of the Daughters of the Confederacy in whitewashing the South’s racial history by encouraging the writing and the state government’s adoption of my 7th grade history textbook. Too bad they got their money back.

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3 Responses to Vanderbilt denames Confederate Hall, and what I learned about my 7th grade Virginia history textbook

  1. Alec H. Boyd says:

    One great thing about the Deady Hall debate is that it is educating everyone about Oregon history of which most were ignorant. It is also driving home the point that historical figures are not properly viewed as saints or sinners, history is not black and white, and that, consistent with the old adage “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” the important thing is to continue the discussion.

    That is one of the reason I favor retaining the name of Deady Hall. Putting up a comprehensive historical marker/display, the proposal that started this whole debate, will keep this education and conversation going.

  2. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    I like the way you think about this.

  3. XDH says:

    I grew up in a moderately sized city in the south that had one of the worse race riots in the early 1920s. Roughly 1000+ houses were burned, 300+ people died, and 10,0000 people were left homeless. All of this, based on a black man supposedly whistling at a white woman, was deeply buried and I did not learn of this shocking tragedy, despite GROWING UP in the area, until long after I moved to Oregon. How could this knowledge be kept so quiet???? I verbally accosted my mother on the phone when public broadcasting revealed these atrocities some 10 years ago. Her “excuse” was that “we did not talk about such things”. WTF?!?!?!?!? Based on these experiences, I agree with Alec Boyd to retain the Deady Hall name, as it should be seen as a way to evaluate historical figures and thus show their serious flaws. To discount their failures/fallacies of those who seek meaningful change denies the justice they seek in the end.