The Virginia History and Textbook Commission


In response to the rising civil rights movement and the challenge to white supremacy, the Senate of Virginia in 1950 created the Virginia History and Textbook Commission to create history texts that sought to impose the Lost Cause version of slavery, the American Civil War (1861–1865), and Reconstruction on Virginia students. Virginia Indians found much of their history erased or ignored in the textbooks, which gave the impression that most Native Americans had been killed or pushed out of Virginia. Although critics charged the books were an attempt by segregationists to promote the history that supported their racial ideas, the fourth-grade book entered public schools in the autumn of 1956 and textbooks for seventh grade and high school were introduced the following year. The Virginia National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opposed the textbooks, and the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA), a Black educators organization, successfully promoted an accurate telling of Black history that led to the adoption of Black history courses throughout the commonwealth beginning in the 1960s. By 1965, educators were widely complaining that the textbooks amounted to propaganda. Nonetheless, in 1966 the State Board of Education extended the use of the textbooks for another six years. A changing political climate, including the surge in Black voting following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the overthrow of the Byrd political machine in 1970, created new impetus to remove the textbooks from schools. In 1972, the Board of Education voted unanimously to drop the books as official history texts. However, the textbooks remained in use in some schools until the late 1970s.


In the late 1940s, an incipient civil rights movement threatened the Jim Crow regime of Virginia and other southern states. Black service members who had returned home from fighting fascism in World War II (1939–1945) began organizing to demand their rights under the U.S. Constitution, buoyed by Black workers who had demonstrated for labor equality at the start of the war. President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1946, ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces. In December 1947, Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights issued a report that called the doctrine of “separate but equal” a failure and pushed for increased federal efforts toward the “elimination of segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin from American life.”

For many in Virginia, the response was a mixture of fear and outrage, especially over the possibility that public schools would be desegregated. With the Cold War beginning and anxiety about communism spreading, many white Virginians believed, as the influential Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse noted in Ten Years of Prelude (1964), that “the movement to end racial segregation was part of a Communist conspiracy.” Julian H. Rutherford, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in the late 1940s, recalled a sense of “paranoia” in that body about communist influence seeping into state institutions like schools. In February 1948, in response to fears about communism and the challenge to white supremacy, Virginia state senators Lloyd Bird and Garland Gray called for the creation of a seven-person committee to examine “the textbooks and other materials used in the History and Government curricula of Virginia’s secondary schools.” The governor at the time, William Tuck, supported the endeavor, selecting Bird to chair the group and appointing six other members, including Gray.

The textbook committee determined that there was a lack of appropriate basic textbooks on Virginia history and government and called for the creation of new books “to instill in hearts and minds a greater love for Virginia and a perpetuation for her ideals.” For many white Virginia politicians, these ideals amounted to an assertion of the Lost Cause narrative, which among other elements asserted that African Americans were better off under slavery and that attempts to racially integrate southern society during Reconstruction were a dismal failure. On January 27, 1950, senators Bird and Gray introduced Senate Joint Resolution No. 5 calling for the “writing and publication of a suitable text on Virginia’s history, government and geography.” The bill also made the original committee a permanent commission that would oversee the writing, publication, and distribution of new textbooks. There were critics of the bill like Theodore Roosevelt Dalton, a Republican member of the Senate of Virginia, who labeled the effort an attempt to preserve the status quo and glorify southern Democrats. Nevertheless, the resolution passed 25 to 6.

The Virginia History and Textbook Commission

The Virginia History and Textbook Commission first met on August 24, 1950. The members decided to create new books for fourth-, seventh-, and eleventh-grade students.  Publishers, however, would not produce Virginia history texts without the assurance that all Virginia schools would adopt the books as exclusive offerings. Ultimately, the commission agreed to the publishers’ request in exchange for control over author selection and content. As an early example, Lawrence Burnett Jr., the Charles Scribner’s Sons editor supervising the transaction (Scribner’s published the fourth- and seventh-grade texts; McGraw-Hill published with eleventh-grade text), agreed to remove references to Confederate spying because the commissioners believed, according to Scribner’s field editor Lawrence Burnette Jr., that no Confederate soldier could be “guilty of the turpitude of ‘hiding’” (Virginia in History and Tradition: Institute of Southern Culture Lectures at Longwood College, 1957).

By this time, the commission’s activities were generating suspicion. On October 21, 1951, Muse wrote in the Washington Post, “To have governmental bodies pass upon what is historic truth is risky business from the standpoint either of democracy or education.” He voiced skepticism about the book’s treatment of the Civil War, slavery, and reconstruction. “Will they describe [slavery] in terms of contented Negroes singing in the evening by moonlight, or will they picture also the slave market and the more sordid aspects of human servitude?,” he asked. “How will the story of the Ku Klux Klan be told?,” he wondered. Would they present the Klan as heroic liberators saving the South or detail its “acts of murderous violence?” He asserted that the textbooks were an attempt to stoke “negrophobia” among whites to maintain segregation.

Despite sporadic opposition, the commission pushed ahead, spending a year selecting authors and friendly publishers. In October 1951, the commission announced that Raymond Dingledine, Lena Barksdale, and Marion Nesbitt would write the fourth-grade book, Francis Simkins, Sidman Poole, and Spotswood Hunnicutt would author the seventh-grade text, and Marvin W. Schlegel and Sadie E. Engleberg would write the high school book. They planned to distribute the texts to students by 1955.

Simkins’s selection was noteworthy. While historians had challenged the Lost Cause narrative for some time, Simkins was one of its remaining academic champions. In his 1947 book, The South Old and New, he explained that “slavery was … an educational process which transformed the black man from a primitive to a civilized person.” The real victims of slavery, according to Simkins, were white enslavers “forced to tolerate tasks undone, orders forgotten, lying and thievery.” Like the textbook commissioners, he also understood that history could be used to support the present racial order. Honoring Virginia’s Confederate past and tradition of segregation, Simkins noted in a 1957 conference on the textbooks at Longwood College offered “effective device[s] for protecting America against forms of outrageous modernism.”

Despite sharing their racial and political views, even Simkins was troubled by some of the commission’s requests. Fearful of communism, the group asked Simkins to “take out any reference to the poor people living in Virginia.” Simkins later told the Virginian-Pilot that he was annoyed when one commissioner advised him to “make every seventh grader aspire to the colonnaded mansion; and if he can’t get there make him happy in the cabin” (William K. Stevens, “Textbook Authors’ Aim: A Conservative Rural Audience,” October 28, 1965).

Hunnicutt’s selection as an author was also significant because, unlike some on the commission, she understood that elements of the Lost Cause had no factual basis but supported them nonetheless as a way to build the proper “attitudes” and “understandings” among students. In a 1957 talk titled “Teaching Virginia History,” she noted that “perpetuating legends and myths often brings the amateur historian-teacher into conflict with the professional historian who too frequently does not understand the dependence of the ten or eleven-year-old mind on romantic and idealistic thinking.” Such historical romanticism, she asserted, was necessary to “build patriotism” and “help students gain the needed perspective in viewing modern problems.”

Another noteworthy author was northern-born Schlegel. Schlegel said in a 1974 oral history interview that he intended to “balance the negative and positive points of slavery as seen by planters during colonial times,” but the commission mandated that he remove any negative references to slavery. He complied and in what would become one of the most infamous phrases in all three textbooks, characterized slavery as a type of “comprehensive social security.”

What the textbook commission hoped to achieve was suggested by Schlegel at the 1957 forum at Longwood College in which he noted that “the Negro, of course, has no control over the preparation of the textbook, and his viewpoint can be safely disregarded. Nevertheless, since the textbook is intended for the Negro schools as well as the white schools, it should be designed so far as possible to instill Virginia ideals in the colored race also.” What exactly were these “Virginia ideals?” Schlegel was clear: “When it is necessary to discuss the Negro, he should be praised for those qualities which are approved by the whites, his loyalty to his master for example.” What Schlegel termed “the realistic version” of history, he said, would “put our ancestors in too severe a light.

The Textbooks

Discrepancies Between White and Black High Schools in Farmville

The battle over school integration in Virginia both delayed the implementation of the textbooks and renewed segregationists’ interest in the books. In April 1951, Barbara Johns, along with several classmates, went on strike to protest poor facilities at Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville. Attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson III agreed to take up the students’ legal case after the local Black community agreed to contest segregation itself. This case would find its way to the Supreme Court as part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. Virginia’s white politicians adopted Massive Resistance as a strategy to oppose integration, closing some schools rather than integrating them. In this climate, the commission invited Virginia attorney general J. Lindsay Almond Jr., a man who prided himself on being “the most massive of all resisters,” to review the seventh-grade text, and he made a number of unspecified changes.

Virginia students first encountered the commission’s work in Virginia’s History, the fourth-grade book that entered public schools in the autumn of 1956. This book, likely due to the age of the intended audience, had less overt Lost Cause themes than the other texts. Nevertheless, Virginia’s History gave a simple justification for slavery, explaining that “the planters in Virginia and in the South needed many men to work for them.” In terms of secession, the book explained that the Civil War began because “the people in the South believed that their rights were being taken away from them.” Perhaps the strongest Lost Cause theme in the fourth-grade book was the veneration of Robert E. Lee. Children were told that “General Lee was a handsome man” and a “great general.”

Virginia Indians, who already had experienced efforts to deny their indigenous identity through a series of racial integrity laws, also found much of their history erased or ignored. Virginia’s History omitted the complexity of indigenous cultures in the region and the integral role Native American people played in shaping the history of the Commonwealth, including the survival of the Jamestown colony. The textbook also gave the impression that most Native Americans had been killed or pushed out of Virginia, when in fact indigenous people had never stopped residing in the Commonwealth, including on two reservations that had been affiliated with the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indian tribes since the seventeenth century.

State-Sanctioned Textbooks

The seventh-grade book, Virginia: History, Government, and Geography, which entered classrooms in 1957, had much stronger Lost Cause themes, calling the Civil War the “War Between the States.” It claimed, “Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy” and that the enslaved “remained loyal to their white mistresses even after President Lincoln promised in his Emancipation Proclamation that the slaves would be freed.”

It also had more implicit references to contemporary civil rights agitation. It implied that freedom for the enslaved was a bad thing: “Although [African Americans] were badly needed for work on the farms, many of them refused to work at any price. They thought that freedom from slavery meant freedom from work.” Drawing on racist stereotypes of Black crime, the authors continued, “It was feared that these idle, roving people would cause trouble. They might even do harm by acts of violence.” The book blamed the federal government for trying to promote Black rights in a section entitled “The Federal Government Intervenes in Local Affairs.” The federal government, the authors alleged, “tried to bully the white people into giving their former slaves equal political and social rights, and they encouraged the Negroes to tell false tales about their former masters.” Reconstruction finally ended, according to this account, when “broad-minded Northerners, after they came in close contact with the Negroes, came to understand Virginia’s point of view.”

The seventh-grade textbook asserted that Virginia Indians were “far more backward” than other Indians in the Americas. This ignored the complex social, economic, and political aspects of Virginia’s indigenous cultures, which included the formation of the Powhatan chiefdom that comprised approximately thirty-two allied tribes before the arrival of the English in 1607. Although the English encountered one of the largest alliances of Indigenous communities on the Eastern Seaboard, Virginia: History, Government, and Geography taught that Virginian Indians were “still in the Stone Age at the time the settlers came to Jamestown.” The book did acknowledge that “the Indian had many good qualities” such as bravery, pride, and stoicism, and that it was the Indians who “taught the English how to live successfully” in Virginia. But in asserting that there was an even exchange of learning that resulted in “a better life for the settlers and the Indians,” it overlooked the violence and loss that Virginia Indians experienced with English colonization.

Cavalier Commonwealth, intended for eleventh-grade students and also entering classrooms in 1957, had the strongest racism, Lost Cause mythology, and attempts to use the past to support contemporary segregation. It alleged that both enslaved people and enslavers “realized that enslavement in a civilized world had been better in many respects for the Negro than the barbarities he might have suffered in Africa.” It asserted that enslaved people had many advantages, such as “long holidays, especially at Christmas,” without noting that the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was typically the only week off many enslaved people received. Paralleling pro-slavery propaganda from the 1850s, such as George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters (1857), it argued that an enslaved person “did not work as hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security.”

The Civil War itself was “as unequal as it was epic,” with the classic Lost Cause statement that the true wonder was “that men in blue did not carry the Stars and Stripes into Richmond much sooner.” The section on Reconstruction had both racist passages and the strongest implicit ties to the present. “Laziness, petty thievery, and the desire to be on the move” governed the formerly enslaved, it claimed. The Fourteenth Amendment, which served as the underpinning for the Brown decision, was suspect because “doubts raised by ratification and by the retractions of New York and New Jersey were disregarded.” The Black codes, laws that limited the freedom of African Americans after the Civil War, were justified because “wandering, pillaging Negroes … misunderstood freedom from slavery to mean freedom from any obligation to make a living.” White Virginians, with the end of Reconstruction, “redeemed” the commonwealth from control by “illiterate and inexperienced Negro and white groups.”

Schlegal, who was eventually removed as a contributor to the textbook because of the “tone” of his writing (although his name remained on Cavalier Commonwealth), saw entire sections that he had written either rewritten or deleted, such as the section on the powerful Byrd Organization that helped maintain segregation in Virginia. He later told an interviewer that his work explaining Indians “as human beings,” as he termed them, was suppressed. The textbook’s minimal attempt to describe Virginia Indian culture and history was largely through a white European lens in which Indigenous people were stereotyped as either noble savages or violent and brutal people. It also insisted that it was “important to understand how few in number were the Virginia Indians” in the days of white settlement, which minimized the impact of European colonization on Indigenous people without noting the role that enslavement, violence, the taking of lands, forced migration, and exposure to European diseases played in reducing the number of Native Americans.

Opposition to the Textbooks

The Virginia NAACP first protested the new Virginia textbooks in 1957. This effort, however, took a backseat to the NAACP’s fight for survival under a Massive Resistance campaign to discredit the organization. John B. Boatright, a state legislator on the original textbook commission, tried to intimidate the organization and slow its civil rights efforts by issuing subpoenas for its membership and contribution rolls.

Other Black organizations worked to blunt the impact of the textbooks. The Virginia Teachers Association (VTA), an African American educators group, had begun developing a Black history curriculum before World War II. In the 1960s, at the initiative of Black educators, school districts throughout Virginia began offering Black history classes. Both Alexandria and Petersburg city schools began offering Black history classes in 1968. As historian Adam Fairclough noted in A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South (2007), the Black history movement “provided a safe vehicle for conveying lessons about oppression, resistance, and black identity” despite the state-sanctioned textbooks.

Widespread educator complaints about the textbooks also increased in the 1960s. William K. Stevens, who wrote a three-part series on the textbooks for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 1965, reported that “a sizeable body of Virginia educators” believed that the books were “out-and-out propaganda.” John Klousia, director of instruction for Norfolk city schools, said the seventh-grade textbook “glorifies a past that never was,” and Franklin Kingdon, the general supervisor for the Chesapeake school district, noted that even white teachers “Virginia-born, Virginia bred and who when they die’ll be Virginia-dead, have found certain passages objectionable” (“Textbooks on Va. Criticized,” Virginian-Pilot, October 26, 1965). The editorial page of the Virginian-Pilot called for a textbook development process free from political influence.

That year and the next, in anticipation of the upcoming Virginia Board of Education decision on future textbook adoptions, the Virginia Council on Human Relations and the Southern Regional Council, two civil rights organizations, campaigned to eradicate what they referred to as “southern-version history textbooks.” The groups mailed pamphlets and brochures to educators and administrators throughout Virginia protesting the books. Despite growing opposition, in 1966 the Board of Education extended the use of the books for another six-year period.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a supreme court justice appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1971, served on the State Board of Education from 1961 to 1969. In a 1968 speech, Powell suggested why the board approved continued usage of the books, even as he acknowledged that “past grave injustices have been imposed upon minorities.” Powell was disturbed by the direct-action phase of the civil rights movement. “Sit-ins on public and private property are not legitimate means of protest,” he said. Powell defended the textbooks as “the best available at the time” and “excellent in most respects.” If anything, he said the problem with the books was not their racism or factual inaccuracies but that they did not stress the importance of “due process of law” and the “rule of law.” However, Powell did call for the creation of a biracial committee to determine new “textual materials.”

In 1967, the VTA merged with the formerly all-white Virginia Education Association, which called for the removal of all three textbooks. Teachers responding to a 1969 survey singled out Virginia’s textbooks as a major “weakness,” with one, according to the March 1970 Virginia Council for the Social Studies Newsletter, calling the eleventh-grade text “a joke.”

Following increasing Black electoral power with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 1970 was a watershed year in Virginia politics. A liberal Republican gubernatorial candidate, Linwood Holton, ended conservative Democratic political dominance in the state. After he took office, he enrolled his white children in formerly all-Black schools. In 1972, the Virginia Board of Education voted unanimously to drop the textbooks following a study that found the state’s textbooks painted a “rosy picture of slavery.” The state, however, would not adopt new textbooks that provided a realistic assessment of slavery and the Civil War, including historical Black figures like Harriet Tubman, and a positive view of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement until 1980. Well into the 1970s, parents complained that their children came home with the old textbooks.

July 26, 1946

President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the United States Armed Forces.

December 1947

President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights calls the doctrine of “separate but equal” a failure and calls for the elimination of segregation.

February 1948

Virginia state senators Lloyd Bird and Garland Gray call for the creation of a seven-person committee to examine textbooks used in the teaching of history in Virginia schools.

January 27, 1950

Virginia state senators Lloyd Bird and Garland Gray introduce a resolution calling for the development of new Virginia history textbooks and making the Virginia textbook committee a permanent commission to oversee the effort.

August 24, 1950

The Virginia History and Textbook Commission meets for the first time and decides to create new fourth-, seventh-, and eleventh-grade books.

October 1951

The Virginia History and Textbook Commission announces the selection of authors to write the books, which will be distributed by 1955.

May 17, 1954

The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.

Autumn 1956

The fourth-grade history book, Virginia’s History, enters Virginia public schools.


The Virginia NAACP protests the new Virginia history textbooks.

Autumn 1957

The seventh-grade history book, Virginia: History, Government, and Geography, and the eleventh-grade history book, Cavalier Commonwealth, enter Virginia public schools.


The Virginia Council on Human Relations and the Southern Regional Council campaign to eliminate “southern-version history textbooks.”

October 1965

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot runs a three-part series on growing educator opposition to the Virginia history textbooks.


The Virginia Board of Education extends the use of the Virginia history textbooks for an additional six years.


The Virginia Teachers Association, a Black educators organization, merges with the white Virginia Education Association, which calls for the removal of all three textbooks from classrooms.


Alexandria and Petersburg city schools begin offering Black history classes.


A survey of Virginia teachers singles out the state’s textbooks as a “major weakness.”

November 4, 1969
A. Linwood Holton scores the GOP's long-awaited breakthrough in state elections, becoming the first Republican governor of Virginia in the twentieth century after defeating Democrat William C. Battle, the son of former governor John S. Battle.
August 31, 1970
After Governor A. Linwood Holton enrolls his children in the majority Black inner-city schools to which they are assigned under a federal court-mandated plan to achieve racial desegregation in the Richmond Public Schools, he is photographed escorting his daughter Tayloe into the nearly all-Black John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond.

The Virginia Board of Education votes unanimously to drop the state’s history textbooks following a study that finds they paint a “rosy picture of slavery.”


The state of Virginia adopts new history textbooks following complaints that the old textbooks are still being used.

  • Dean, Adam Wesley. “Who Controls the Past Controls the Future”: The Virginia History Textbook Controversy,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 117, no. 4 (2009): 319–356,
  • Fairclough, Adam. A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.
  • Muse, Benjamin. Ten Years of Prelude: The Story of Integration since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Decision. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
APA Citation:
Dean, Adam & Spivey, Ashley. The Virginia History and Textbook Commission. (2022, September 06). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/the-virginia-history-and-textbook-commission.
MLA Citation:
Dean, Adam, and Ashley Spivey. "The Virginia History and Textbook Commission" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (06 Sep. 2022). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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