Beginning this fall, Texas students will learn a fact that's as true today as it was in 1861: Texas and the 10 other states that made up the Confederacy seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery.
New state social studies standards for fifth and seventh grades require students to be able to explain slavery's central role in the Civil War. Previous standards, adopted in 2010, downplayed slavery as the main reason Texas joined the Confederacy, listing it among a number of issues that led to the war, after states' rights and sectionalism.
The change is part of a revision of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, the state's standards for public schools. While the new fifth-grade standards still list states' rights and sectionalism as factors in the war, they're presented as secondary issues that emerged as a result of the expansion of slavery. The change represents a compromise between Democrats on the Texas State Board of Education who wanted to elevate slavery to its correct place as the war's central cause and Republicans who wanted to keep states' rights in the curriculum.
The new standards go into effect this year at the middle school level and in the 2020-21 school year at the elementary level. In an email, Dallas ISD spokeswoman Robyn Harris said the district's social studies department has been developing a curriculum that complies with the new state standards. That curriculum makes use of primary documents like the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott case, as well as excerpts from historical texts by President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President John C. Calhoun, a staunch supporter of slavery.
"The curriculum will support students in thinking like a historian through culturally responsive strategies such as discussion continuum, link and think, and writing to learn," Harris said. "Therefore, students will be provided with multiple perspectives and given the opportunity to process their learning through their own experiences."
Some argue the change doesn't go far enough. Ron Francis, a middle school social studies teacher in Highland Park, said that while the new seventh-grade standards are more explicit than the ones they replaced about slavery's role in the Civil War, they're much more vague about events that followed, such as Reconstruction, campaigns of violence against blacks, black codes and Jim Crow laws.
Francis pointed out that the eighth-grade curriculum still requires students to be able to explain the "political, economic and social factors" that led to the war and only mentions slavery as a secondary issue. He argued that language is an attempt to whitewash the issue.
"They're being cute with their language there so they can avoid saying the word 'slavery,'" he said.
Although the war ended more than 150 years ago, Confederate-sympathizing groups have sought to obscure its cause ever since. Today, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy are lobbying to have a Confederate plaque returned to the Texas Capitol months after one was removed. The State Preservation Board, which includes Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, voted unanimously in January to remove the plaque.
The plaque was placed in the capitol building in 1959, during the civil rights movement. It includes a pledge from the Children of the Confederacy, an auxiliary group of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, "to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the War between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)."
The Texans who made the decision to pull the state out of the Union weren't similarly confused about why they did what they did. In Texas' Declaration of Causes, the document in which the state's Secession Convention laid out the state's reasons for seeking to break away from the United States, members of the convention expressly wrote that Texas was seceding because it viewed the Lincoln administration and the Northern states as being hostile to slavery. To the extent that the document discusses the issue of states' rights at all, only one right is in question: that of Southern states to continue the practice of slavery without interference from the federal government and the Northern states.
"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law," the document states. "They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States."
A few paragraphs later, members of the convention argued that white supremacy was the natural order of the world and one of the nation's founding principles.
"We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable," the document states.
‘Rooted in Racism’
Francis, the Highland Park teacher, said the inclusion of other issues like states' rights, tariffs and sectionalism in state social studies standards perpetuates the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy. That myth holds that the Confederate cause was a just and noble one, that slavery's role in the war was minimal and that slavery was beneficial for both master and slave.
That's the story the South tried to write for itself after the war, during the Jim Crow era, Francis said. It's a version of history that has deep roots in white supremacist ideology. In keeping that concept in state standards, the state school board is helping to perpetuate that ideology, he said, whether it means to or not.
"This is rooted in racism," he said. "If we're propagating a racist history, then we're propagating racism."
Francis emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not as a representative of Highland Park ISD. He thinks the inclusion of secondary issues like states' rights, tariffs and sectionalism in state standards is part of a larger pattern in which the state school board tries to minimize racial oppression in its social studies curriculum. Important historical concepts like sharecropping, redlining and the return of white supremacy to the South after the end of the war are entirely missing from state standards.
Before the state school board approved the changes last year, more than 200 professors of history and related subjects from colleges and universities across the country signed a letter urging board members to rethink the standards. In particular, the professors took issue with the inclusion of states' rights in the fifth- and eighth-grade curricula.
"In doing so, the TEKS standards resurrect the 'Lost Cause' myth, a long-discredited version of history first promoted in the late-19th and early-20th centuries to glorify the Confederate past and reinforce white supremacist policies such as the disenfranchisement of African Americans and Jim Crow segregation," professors wrote.
‘We Need to Know All of American History’
Not only was slavery the central reason Texas chose to join the Confederacy, it also played a key role in the state's history up to that point, said Nakia Parker, a history professor at Michigan State University. In September 1829, Mexico abolished slavery but granted a one-year exemption to Texas, which was a province of Mexico at the time. Many white settlers in Texas were slave owners who came from Southern states, which created a point of conflict between settlers and the Mexican federal government — one that eventually led those settlers to secede from Mexico and form the Republic of Texas.
"Slavery wasn't the only cause of the Texas Revolution, but it was a major factor in why settlers decided to make their own independent nation," said Parker, who recently completed her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin.
Once Texas was an independent republic, slavery was enshrined in law, Parker said. The Texas Constitution of 1836 was, in some ways, a first draft of the Confederate constitution, she said. Where the language in the U.S. Constitution regarding slavery is vague, Texas' constitution was much more explicit, she said. It forbade free black people from living in Texas or becoming citizens of the republic. It also stated that anyone brought to Texas as a slave was required to remain a slave. Slave owners were not allowed to free their own slaves without approval from the Texan Congress, and Congress was not allowed to make laws that would emancipate slaves or otherwise affect the slave trade.
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When Texas was annexed into the Union as a slave state, it upset an uneasy balance between slave states and free states that had been maintained as the nation expanded westward. Although the Civil War may have been inevitable already, Parker said the annexation of Texas likely contributed to it.
Parker was one of the 200 historians who signed the letter to the state school board. She thinks many people's reluctance to teach an honest history of slavery and the Civil War comes from the idea that history instruction is meant to instill patriotism in students, and that discussing difficult or even horrifying parts of the nation's history is somehow unpatriotic.
Parker counters that children should receive an accurate picture of the nation's history. That's particularly true where slavery is concerned, she said, because its legacy continues more than a century later. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed slaves in 1865, but the civil rights movement didn't happen until a century later. Even today, issues like police brutality can be traced back to the legacy of slavery, she said. It's important that school children understand how the past shapes issues in Texas and nationwide today.
"When we are taught history in school, we like to hear the wonderful aspects of it," Parker said. "I feel that we need to know all of American history — the good parts and the bad."