Apartheid Alabama Style
“Write a sketch about the Ku Klux Klan”
We were surrounded by it. “White and Colored” signs everywhere. Separate doors and water fountains and restrooms and so much more. Separate schools, churches, cemeteries, and areas where people could live or not live defined our landscape so emphatically we didn’t even think to question it. All this rage at losing the “War Between the States,” and longing for the days of Gone with the Wind. It was a cruel façade, and we didn’t even know that. How could we?
Racist talk in our homes. The songs we sang. We didn’t even know we were getting another dose at school with our racist textbooks. During the worst of the pandemic as I was working on my book Unloose My Heart, I tried to find content about slavery in books I would have had in the Birmingham schools. I could find only a bit. Then, I asked every former classmate I could get hold of what they remembered. For an event that happened seven decades ago plus or minus a couple of years on either side, eligible peers still alive and with an intact memory didn’t exactly spill out of my repertoire of fellow students.
I finally found a few to query and all said the same thing: “I don’t remember anything.” When I did finally find what was in the textbooks I would have had to read and be tested on as a child, I now feel certain that were I to query Black peers from back then (of course, I didn’t and don’t know any) they would remember. How could they not? Read on and you will see.
At last, several threads have come together. Here is my fraught inroad into Southern history textbooks for public school children. One book, mostly. As soon as I knew I would be going to Alabama to do readings from Unloose My Heart I was eager to do a reading at the Birmingham Public Library, which had been a place of safety, joy, learning, and solace to me as a child. I wanted to be able to say thank you to anyone there who would hear it and to the building itself, even to the Romulus and Remus statue still on the mezzanine above the former Children’s Room. That statue continues to live in my heart.
The library with its Children’s Room, beloved murals intact, which I so loved as a child, is now part of the Linn-Henley Research Library, and, as luck would have it, one of the librarians was helping to arrange the reading. I queried her about whether there were any textbooks from the 1940s and 50s in their collection. There were, and she would have them pulled for Cousin PJ MacAlpine and me to look at while we were there. PJ, thankfully for a lot of reasons, had volunteered to accompany me on what I call the eight-day Alabama Book Tour. Not having a lot of time, PJ and I divided up the books and used the index to help us hone in on text about slavery.
There it was. The Story of Alabama: A State History by Joseph Howard Parks, Professor of History, Birmingham Southern College and Robert Edgar Moore, Associate Professor of Education at the same college. Even if I don’t remember the book’s content, I do remember the dark blue cover. The library’s 1952 copy had been published by an Atlanta company called Turner E. Smith & Company. I cannot find if there were more editions or anything about the ideologies of these two authors. They were, perhaps, not quite as blatant about white supremacy as was their colleague, Marie Bankhead Owen, in crafting Alabama history for Alabama’s children, or maybe they were. Never mind that Black children had to read the same demeaning and false material about themselves. However, the authors, extreme white supremacists or slightly less so, would have still been under Owen’s influence.
One of Owen’s books, History of Alabama for Junior High Schools, written with Walter M. Jackson, Superintendent of Schools, Selma, Alabama was published in 1938 by the Dixie Book Company, Inc. in Montgomery. Because it was written for junior high students, I probably did not have to study it as by then I was in private school. By the time Mrs. Owen authored this book, she had taken over as the director of the Alabama State Department of Archives and History after her husband died in 1920. She was the aunt of Tallulah Bankhead and a member of the well-to-do and powerful Bankhead family.
I grew up knowing the Bankhead name. Until now, I had no idea who she was and how she influenced all of us children in Alabama schools as a racist, a vocal opponent of women’s suffrage and civil rights, and promoter of the “Lost Cause.” According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.org, she thought women's influence should be restricted to “maintaining supremacy in the home rather than in politics.” Born in 1869 and a daughter of enslavers, she was active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy and became the force behind the UDC's surveillance of Southern schools to ensure the “Lost Cause” history was promoted. Living until 1958, she likely was wielding her influence on Alabama history through all my years of Birmingham schooling. She is the reason the Confederate flag continues in the Alabama coat-of-arms.
By the fourth grade, I was still walking almost two miles in total to and from school every day carrying my books in a battered satchel. My beloved dog Dingy would always be waiting for me on our porch when I got home, stub of a tail wagging vigorously. I was a conscientious student. It is disquieting to see these words that I had to read, write about, and take tests on and not remember them or anything about how they affected me.
The Story of Alabama: A State History
For Further Study
carpetbagger scalawag rebel
registration radical bribery
For things to do:
Write a sketch about the Ku Klux Klan. Also write a sketch about dealing with the Freedman's Bureau.
Ku Klux Klan Organized
Secret organizations sprang up all over the South. The best known was the Ku Klux Klan which started in Pulaski, Tennessee. Boys put on white robes and went about having fun scaring people. Grown men then got the idea to use this technique to scare black people. Soon there were “dens” in Alabama. Many whites and even more negroes are superstitious. Perhaps they thought the white robed figures were ghosts of the Confederate dead. A night riding visit or fear of a visit caused a number of persons to improve their conduct and go to work or leave the community.
Interest Centers in Land
Land, slaves, and cotton were all the people thought and talked about. More than ever before, the planters were buying out the small farmers along the river systems and developing larger plantations. The growth of plantations meant that more slaves were needed to work the land. They became more and more essential and higher priced.
Slave Life on Plantations
The slave quarters was (sic) a kind of community in which all residents were equal. Shouts of joy came from playing children. Adults also made merry in the evenings and on 'off days', singing and dancing well into the night. Celebrations and contests were encouraged by the master, for a contented slave was usually a good worker. A big 'feed', a dance or hunting trip into the woods was often promised as a reward for a good week's work."
On the better plantations, these [slave] cabins were clean and orderly places at which to live. Sometimes each slave cabin had a vegetable garden and yard, for slave families were encouraged to produce a part of their food for their own use. The houses were clean, sometimes whitewashed and well arranged, but they had few pieces of furniture inside.
Some slaves were good workers and very obedient. Many took pride in what they did, and loved their cabins and the plantation much as if they actually owned them. Others were lazy, disobedient, and sometimes vicious.
Other parts of the text go on to say that a marriage between two slaves was performed by the master who “merely pronounced the couple man and wife” and that he could end a marriage as well. Then, “not many separations occurred,” and families were large. “When a child was about seven, he began to do light work.” It was apparently left to our nine-year -old minds to figure out that such a child, two years younger than we were, was made to work.
The issue of punishment was addressed, “…those who were mean, and unruly were punished in some manner, and the type of punishment to be applied was always a problem. Cruel punishment should not be inflicted. Whipping was allowed, but mutilation, that is, something which caused permanent injury was against the law. …some hot-tempered masters and overseers mistreated and abused slaves as they did their mules.”
I wonder if any children ever asked questions about exactly what was meant by whippings and mutilation and people treated and abused like the mules. Did it puzzle us that adults were being “whipped?” Did any of us children question the truth of this information, now easily seen as full of falsehoods, distortions, misleading statements, and racist propaganda?
The authors did present some negative aspects of slavery, though minimized, misleading, and partially false.
… "the practice of using overseers frequently had bad results. The less spent on upkeep of the land and buildings and on food and clothing for the slaves, the more profit the overseer could show... Unless he happened to be a kind person, he might pay little attention to slaves’ claims to be ill. …Another unpleasant side of slavery was the separation of families. Since slaves were bought and sold, it too frequently happened that members of a family became separated. This was not, however, the general rule for “most owners refused to sell except by entire families.”
Then the text goes on to imply that only slave traders would separate families for the most part. It states this was one reason that slave traders were looked upon as “rather low-class people and seldom rated as social equals of planters.”
There is more in the textbook on slavery and the evils of reconstruction, but this is flavor enough. As I write this in May of 2023 I am keenly aware that another method to control childrens’ reading— book banning- is spreading across parts of our country.
Finally seeing some of what my peers and I were required to fill our young minds with, mostly untrue and vile propaganda, I sink into myself and feel more sad than angry, though surely both. To “teach” this to nine-year-olds, and knowing now that Black children in their separate schools, which were supplied with old textbooks from white schools, had to consume this same inimical destructive text so demeaning to them—what did it do to all of us, Black and white? How can we fully ever know?