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Who Controls the Past: The Virginia History and Textbook Commission

Our new entry on the Virginia History and Textbook Commission explores another facet of the Commonwealth’s mid-twentieth century effort to hold back the hands of time in a country that was moving toward desegregation. Like the Massive Resistance campaign that shut down public schools in some Virginia communities rather than comply with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the commission was created by the Senate of Virginia in response to fears that federal efforts such as President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights would result in the desegregation of Virginia’s public schools.

The Virginia Senate hand-picked historians to write the textbooks who would promote a Lost Cause narrative of history to buttress arguments that African Americans could not be successfully integrated into white society.

The effort was controversial from the start. As Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse noted, “To have governmental bodies pass upon what is historic truth is risky business from the standpoint either of democracy or education.”

As with Massive Resistance, the effort did not end well. The textbooks were introduced into schools in 1956 and 1957, as the state-sanctioned resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was at its apex. But by 1959, Massive Resistance had crumbled in the face of federal rulings, widespread public opposition to closed schools, and warnings from the business community that the school crisis was damaging the state’s economy.

By the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. The Virginia history textbooks, with their claims that slavery could be viewed as a type of “comprehensive social security” and that enslaved people were “generally happy” under slavery, became an embarrassment. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported in 1965 that “a sizeable body of Virginia educators” believed that the books were “out-and-out propaganda.” But the textbooks wouldn’t officially be dropped from Virginia schools until 1972, and there were reports of students still using them in the late 1970s.

The story of the Virginia History and Textbook Commission stands as a stark reminder of how important reliable, factual information about history is to students–and all of us. Here at Encyclopedia Virginia, we believe that everyone deserves free access to trustworthy information about Virginia’s history and culture, whether you’re working on a school project, filling in your family’s history, or seeking context for current events.

Since 2008, EV’s mission has been to provide a free, reliable multimedia resource that tells the inclusive story of Virginia for those who seek to understand how the past informs the present and future. We collaborate with scholars, subject-matter experts, and cultural institutions to share stories about Virginia’s history and culture. We work with them to develop entries, curate media, and create interactive features, like our virtual tours. And it’s all available, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection. You can help ensure free, public access to Virginia history and culture by making a gift to Encyclopedia Virginia

EntryPoint: The Virginia History and Textbook Commission

Want to learn more about the Virginia History and Textbook Commission? Join EV editor Patti Miller from 12-1 pm on September 21 in conversation with Adam Dean, PhD, professor of History at the University of Lynchburg, and Ashley Spivey, PhD, a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and executive director of Kenah Consulting. We’ll explore the origins and impact of the Virginia History and Textbook Commission. REGISTER HERE.

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