Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Colorful pictures and questionable passages from 1939 history textbook

As Back to School Week continues...

The most interesting things about this old history textbook are the design of the front cover, the inside illustrations and the unfortunate descriptions of slavery in the United States.

The book, 1939's "A Full-Grown Nation," was written by Edna McGuire and published by The Macmillan Company.

In a preface, McGuire writes:
"Dear Boys and Girls:
During the Century of Progress World's Fair held in Chicago in 1933 and 1934 a pageant called 'The Wings of a Century' was presented. It showed many vivid scenes from American history. Actors dressed in the costumes of long ago rode on the great outdoor stage in covered wagons, stagecoaches, automobiles, and trains. Indians made an attack on a party of pioneers. A gay group went through an old-time dance while a fiddle played. Ladies in hoop skirts bowed to gentlemen in long-tailed coats. ...

As I watched that pageant, I determined that some day I would write a book which would make the events of the past come alive for boys and girls as the pageant had made them come alive for me."
While I understand that it must be taken in the context of the times, it was jaw-dropping and disappointing to see how slavery in the United States was described in portions of the textbook.

Passages go out of their way to describe slaves as being content, well-treated and happy with their place in the world. While there is no doubt that there were "well-treated" slaves and that some of their days had joyous moments, some of these excerpts from "A Full-Grown Nation" are unconscionably misleading ... or even cheery:

  • "In the South there were planters who owned great plantations and many slaves, but there were also farmers who owned few or no slaves and who did much of the work of their small farms with their own hands. There were some free Negroes, and a large number of very poor white people sometimes scornfully called 'poor white trash' by their more fortunate neighbors."
  • "Glimpses of country life in the South. — When we reach the plantation on a pleasant summer morning we find everyone bustling about the place. A barbecue is to be given that day, and the preparations for this gay event keep both the slaves and their owner busy."
  • "Toward noon carriages roll into the driveway. Out of these pour people of all ages — older gentlemen leaning on their canes, pretty girls in hoop skirts, older women, fat black 'mammies,' and children."
  • "Soon the great white house and the shaded grounds around it are filled with groups of gay, laughing people. ... The slaves are as happy as their master and mistress at thus entertaining company. Not only does a barbecue mean a change from the usual daily work, but it brings their black friends from all the neighboring plantations. They too exchange news with old friends. Especially happy today is Mose, the coachman, for his broad wife, Nancy (a wife living on another plantation), has come with her mistress to the barbecue. When Mose took a wife on a neighboring plantation he knew that he could see her only now and then, but his master has promised that if cotton brings a good price this year he will purchase Nancy."
  • "The day after the barbecue we are surprised to find our hostess still busy. Instead of having nothing to do because there are nearly a hundred slaves on the plantation, the mistress finds that each new slave adds something to her cares."
  • "We find that on this plantation any slave who cares to is allowed to grow a little patch of cotton. When this is sent to market the money from its sale belongs to the Negro. Not all planters permit their slaves this privilege, but it is common on many plantations."

If you still have the stomach for it after those passages, here are some of George M. Richards' colorful illustrations from the pages of "A Full-Grown Nation."

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