Virginia History

Contributed by Evelyn Edson, president
Scottsville Museum

Amid the furor over the “1619 project,” I’m sure some of us older folks have thought back to the way slavery was portrayed in our history textbooks. (The 1619 project is a New York Times journalistic endeavor to place the consequences of slavery at the center of the country’s history.)

The museum has in its collection School History of Virginia by Edgar Sydenstricker and A. L. Burger, published in Richmond in 1914.  The name W.D. Smith, history teacher and principal of Scottsville School, is written on the flyleaf.  The book opens with a portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Regarding slavery, the authors note the arrival of the slave ship at Jamestown in 1619, observing that, “the people saw nothing wrong in owning slaves, believing it was no more a sin to buy these negroes than to buy cattle or horses.”  George Mason, one of the few early Virginians who opposed slavery, wrote that “slavery discouraged art and manufactures, led the poor to despise labor, prevented the immigration of white persons to the state, turned slave masters into petty tyrants, and brought the judgment of Heaven upon the country.”  The chapter on Virginia under the Articles of Confederation concludes that the opposition to slavery faced a “great difficulty to find some way of setting them free without leaving the slaves without care and means to support themselves since they were very ignorant and helpless, and without doing their owners, who had spent large amount of money in buying slaves, serious injustice.”

In the chapter on the lead-up to the Civil War, the authors reflect again on the institution of slavery, saying, “The owning of ignorant and helpless negroes by kind white masters was probably the best thing for negroes themselves at that time… Coming from Africa, they were civilized more quickly by being in and around the homes of cultivated people than could have been done in any other way in those days.  They were some cruel and inconsiderate masters, of course; but they were exceptions….  As a general rule the slaves were happy and contented and were faithful to their masters.”

In 1950, the Virginia legislature decided to issue new textbooks, but lest you think that this view was abandoned, the commission urged the authors to “instill in hearts and minds a greater love for Virginia and a perpetuation for her ideals.”  These ideals included a glorification of the “Lost Cause” and the view that slavery was a beneficent institution.  The new books came out in 1957 and continued to be used in schools until 1970.

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