Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery. Educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it. Textbooks do not have enough material about it.

So concludes the Southern Poverty Law Center following a survey of U.S. high school seniors and history teachers, which showed wide gaps in knowledge of, misinformation about, and a lack of preparedness to discuss slavery in America. 

For instance, only 8 percent of students surveyed identified slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, and two-thirds didn’t know it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery. Teachers, researchers discovered, often have the desire to provide comprehensive information but lack the resources and training to discuss the complex topic. 

Take the Southern Poverty Law Center American slavery quiz.

Difficult truths

“Slavery, and slave resistance, are uncomfortable and complex topics that have been sanitized in books to make them more teachable,” says Suffolk University Distinguished Professor of History Kenneth Greenberg. “Slavery is such a brutal institution and teachers find it difficult to discuss the brutality honestly.” 

As a result, says Greenberg, education about slavery is often superficial and over-simplified, with disproportionate emphasis on the more positive stories of iconic figures.

“The simple narrative of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves is not the whole story. African Americans by their actions created the circumstances that led to their freedom. You need to teach both parts,” says Greenberg. 

Engraving of a Virginia slave auction

"A slave auction in Virginia," 1861. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Resistance and rebellion

Greenberg and other academics are working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to provide the tools teachers need to have honest conversations about American slavery through the Teaching Hard History podcast series. Greenberg’s episode, “Resistance Means More than Rebellion” focuses on the diverse ways enslaved people fought for dignity and autonomy. Greenberg also wrote a chapter on resistance in a book adopted by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a model for teachers, Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.

When texts and lessons cover slave resistance, they often touch on well-known revolts like Nat Turner’s rebellion. But resistance was much more pervasive and often much more subtle. 

“Learning to read. Having your own Bible. Falling in love, getting married. Developing a distinct African American form of Christianity. These were acts of resistance because they were seen by masters as threats to slavery and helped enslaved people gain knowledge and build bonds outside their captivity,” says Greenberg. He also points to running away as an act of resistance that triggered many legal and moral fights in the northern states that helped spark the Civil War. 

Moving forward

Greenberg says the country’s current polarized political environment makes teaching slavery even more difficult. Confederate monuments, for example, have become flashpoints for conflict between historical accuracy and nostalgic revisionism. His solution: brutal honesty and recognition of the key role played by African Americans in achieving their own freedom.