History books don’t tell you everything

Published 9:30 am Friday, October 20, 2017

By TJ Ray

A random scroll through the National Archives revealed a series of interviews. The first one I chose to read had the following paragraph in it:

“Slaves have been stripped naked and lashed, often to death. Dey would be left strapped after twenty-five to fifty lashes every two or three hours to stand dere all night. De next day, de overseer would be back with a heavy paddle full of holes dat had been dipped in boiling after and beat until de whole body was full of blisters. Den he’d take a cat-and-nine-tails dipped in hot salt water to draw out de bruised blood and would open every one of dem blisters with dat” Sometimes the teeth of a saw blade would be dragged over the blisters to open them prior to using the salted whip.

Email newsletter signup

Those are the words of Henry Johnson, a former slave, age 90+, one of the hundreds of ex-slaves interviewed during the American Writers Project, 1936-38. I downloaded a set of the files and read them, mesmerized by what they offered. Brutal treatment such as Mr. Johnson described above was common. Praise of one master because he didn’t whip his slaves was matched by others who did. Reconstruction mishandling of blacks resulted in observations that they sometimes were better off as slaves than as freemen.

Assimilation of thousands of freed slaves was often effected clumsily. Many of the slave narratives suggest that.

Anyone can access all the volumes of the narratives, but a one-volume version was collected and published by Norman R. Yetman, Life Under the “Peculiar Institution.”

Reading the narratives in that book was followed by On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Solder’s Civil War Letters from the Front. May 1863 until March 1864 may seem a short while, but it covered the military career of one black soldier, Corporal James Henry Gooding.

Writing regularly to the New Bedford, Massachusetts, Gooding documented the experiences he and others had in his black regiment. Early in the war, the question was often raised about whether black men would fight. Two regiments of volunteers joined and put that question to bed. Sadly, Gooding would be wounded and captured in one of his early frays and spent most of the rest of his life in Andersonville Prison.

On March 9, 1864, Captain James Grace of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment wrote one final letter to the Mercury. “Messrs. Editors:—I am pained to inform you that Corporal James H. Gooding was killed in battle on the 20th inst. at Olustee Station. He was one of the Color Corporals and was with the colors at the time. So great was the rout of our troops that we left nearly all our dead and wounded on the field.”

Well into the Civil War the question was on the table: would blacks fight for the Union.

Lincoln was dubious, and it may well have been the number of those who did that convinced him to declare his proclamation. Corporal Gooding and the chaplain are part of the evidence that persuaded him.

Those books excited me enough to look at books they referenced, among them “The American Slave: A Composite Biography” by George P. Rawick. Near the end he quotes a black corporal acting as chaplain one Sunday with his all-black regiment: “If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before; our freedom might have slipped through de two houses of Congress and President Linkum’s four years might have passed by & notin been done for we. But now tings can never go back, because we have showed our energy & our courage & and our naturally manhood.”

Whew! A lot of reading for an old brain in one summer. But I read one more book, one that revealed how all that human suffering became sugar coated in history books. It is always interesting to watch something occur and realize that the players know things and sense things that the audience totally overlooks. A wink, wink here, and a nod, nod there gives the game away. Apply that to those of us who only see an end product and are wholly ignorant of its history. Students are not challenged to find error or fault or bias in the textbooks prescribed for them. Likewise, most of the public has no idea of the ins and outs of textbook adoption.

But sometimes — not very often —along comes a writer or two who set out to straighten up the narrative, to tell things more like that happened than to massage them into overlooking or distorting events they write about. For the life of me, I can’t recall the textbook I used in the sixth grade — can’t even remember who the teacher was! But a couple of young professors, one from Tougaloo and one from Millsaps, wrote a history of Mississippi that set out to erase the warped things taken for granted. Their view of the state’s past did not avoid the business of slavery or the pains of Reconstruction.

When those two got their book ready to go, they ran head-on into the State Textbook Selection powers. And those worthies weren’t interested in going down that new road that showed our past without rose-colored glasses. Sounds dull, huh? Not on your life! Charles Eagles dusted off the cobwebs of State history and wrote about the controversy over Mississippi history textbooks. His fine book is Civil Rights, Culture Wars.

A summer that spanned the reading of hundreds of slave narratives and the collection of letters from the front by a Yankee black corporal and ended with a book about books was a most fulfilling three months.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.