The Challenges of Getting the Past Right

We at Encyclopedia Virginia value accuracy and getting it right when it comes to telling the story of Virginia’s history and culture. Since we went online in 2008, we have continually refined our processes to ensure that we’re getting it right—or at least as right as is possible for a staff of fallible humans. 

That’s why it’s important for EV to acknowledge when we get it wrong, as in the case of this illustration from our popular entry on the Virginia History and Textbook Commission:

This illustration is from Virginia: History, Government, Geography (1957), one of the textbooks produced under the aegis of the Virginia History and Textbook Commission, a body created by the Senate of Virginia in 1950 to promote a Lost Cause version of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. 

The original caption for this image mistakenly identified the illustration, for which there is no caption, as the arrival of an enslaved family in Virginia, consistent with the chapter title “How the Negroes Lived under Slavery.” It was recently brought to our attention by staff at the Valentine Museum, which used the information from our caption in an exhibit, that it was incorrect. 

According to a teacher who had taught with the textbook, the illustration actually relates to two paragraphs on a facing page that detailed the manumission of enslaved families who were sent to Liberia by their enslavers. We’re grateful for this teacher’s expertise in identifying this image. 

We have corrected the caption on the image to note that the illustration depicts a white man freeing the people he had formerly enslaved and sending them to Liberia. It’s also important to note that the decision to illustrate an emancipation, instead of the far more common scenes of hard labor and servitude endured by most enslaved people, demonstrates the propagandistic nature of this textbook and its accompanying illustrations in promoting the Lost Cause narrative that slavery was a beneficial and humane institution. 

Encyclopedia Virginia apologizes for this error and will use it as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to our already rigorous review processes. 


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