Virginia 4th-Grade Textbook Criticized Over Claims on Black Confederate Soldiers

Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, October 20, 2010

A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War–a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.

The passage appears in “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” which was distributed in the state’s public elementary schools for the first time last month. The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Scholars are nearly unanimous in calling these accounts of black Confederate soldiers a misrepresentation of history. Virginia education officials, after being told by The Washington Post of the issues related to the textbook, said that the vetting of the book was flawed and that they will contact school districts across the state to caution them against teaching the passage.

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Masoff defended her work. “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she said. “I am a fairly respected writer.”

The issues first came to light after College of William & Mary historian Carol Sheriff opened her daughter’s copy of “Our Virginia” and saw the reference to black Confederate soldiers.

“It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff said. {snip}

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The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers based in Columbia, Tenn., has long maintained that substantial numbers of black soldiers fought for the South The group’s historian-in-chief, Charles Kelly Barrow, has written the book “Black Confederates.”

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The state’s curriculum requires textbook publishers and educators to explore the role African Americans played in the Confederacy, including their work on plantations and on the sidelines of battle. Those standards have evolved in recent years to make lessons on the Civil War more inclusive in a state that is growing increasingly diverse.

When Masoff began work on the textbook, she said she consulted a variety of sources–history books, experts and the Internet. But when it came to one of the Civil War’s most controversial themes–the role of African Americans in the Confederacy–she relied primarily on an Internet search.

{snip}

In its short lesson on the roles that whites, African Americans and Indians played in the Civil War, “Our Virginia” says, “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

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She [Masoff] added that the book was reviewed by a publisher’s advisory council of educators and that none of the advisers objected to the textbook’s assertion.

Historians from across the country, however, said the sentence about Confederate soldiers was wrong or, at the least, overdrawn. They expressed concerns not only over its accuracy but over the implications of publishing an assertion so closely linked to revisionist Confederate history.

“It’s more than just an arcane, off-the-wall problem,” said David Blight, a professor at Yale University. “This isn’t just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it’s about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself.”

{snip}

Masoff said one of her sources was Ervin Jordan, a University of Virginia historian who said he has documented evidence–in the form of 19th-century newspapers and personal letters–of some African Americans fighting for the Confederacy. But in an interview, Jordan said the account in the fourth-grade textbook went far beyond what his research can support.

“There’s no way of knowing that there were thousands,” Jordan said. “And the claim about Jackson is totally false. I don’t know where that came from.”

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