fb-pixel Skip to main content
Renée Graham

The danger of forgetting that the Civil War was caused by slavery

A slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, during the 1860s.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Civil War tried to rectify the breech birth of this nation, and to understand America, one must understand the Civil War. And to understand the Civil War, one must recognize unequivocally that this conflict was about slavery, those who wanted it abolished and those who were determined to keep black men, women, and children in bondage.

“It could have been a very ugly, filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all,” said historian Barbara Fields in “The Civil War,” Ken Burns’s landmark documentary. “And it was the battle for emancipation and the people who pushed it forward — the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens — it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.”


Alarmingly, too many young people in this country know little to nothing about it.

According “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, American schools are doing a woefully inadequate job in teaching students about the central event in this nation’s history. Among those surveyed, only 8 percent of high school seniors identified slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, while 68 percent don’t know slavery was formally ended by a constitutional amendment.

America is built on the abused and violated bodies of enslaved black people. Though human bondage technically ended more than a century ago, its damning consequences still shackle this nation every day. Systemic racism is the misbegotten spawn of forced and sanctioned subjugation — so, too, is mass incarceration, police violence, voter suppression, and a poverty rate among African-Americans well above the national average.

“This report places an urgent call on educators, curriculum writers and policy makers to confront the harsh realities of slavery and racial injustice,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance. “Learning about slavery is essential for us to bridge the racial differences that continue to divide our nation.”


With a president who counts white supremacists among his most loyal supporters in and outside of the White House, we are a nation deeply divided. This is an administration where Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson last year referred to slaves as “immigrants,” and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called historically black colleges and universities “pioneers” of school choice, ignoring the fact that such institutions were only created because white schools barred entry to black students. The “choice” was to attend a black school, or none at all.

Such responses deliberately spin benevolent fictions around the searing realities of slavery and persistent American racism. That means there’s little motivation to correct the deficiencies in an American educational system where 58 percent of teachers are dissatisfied with their textbooks, and 39 percent say their state offers little support for teaching about slavery.

History is inconvenient. It’s also vulnerable to revisionists intent on comforting those who profit from the degradation of others or masking the depths of human savagery. It’s a whitewash, and it isn’t new. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, a staunch segregationist, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg without mentioning slavery. A century later, a textbook in Texas schools referred to Africans forcibly brought to America as “workers” rather than slaves.

Nor is it uniquely American. Polish President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday signed a bill making it illegal to accuse his nation or its people of collaborating with Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. (Historians generally agree there was some Polish complicity.) Violators could face a fine or jail time up to three years.


Poland wants to sanitize its past. Yet with American slavery, our past breathes in the present. Those who don’t understand the causes of the Civil War can overlook why statues honoring treasonous men must be removed. Those who refuse to acknowledge the wounds of slavery cannot comprehend why it is still necessary to proclaim that black lives matter in a society where blackness is criminalized. The real lost cause is owning an accurate accounting of the original sin that pollutes this nation’s soul.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What, then, is the fate of a nation soon in the charge of a future generation of leaders and policy makers who don’t know our history at all?

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.