Publisher To Remove Black Confederate Reference

In Virginia, a new textbook for fourth graders has created a stir. The line in question claims that thousands of blacks fought for the South in the Civil War. It's a claim disputed by most historians and an idea pushed by some to minimize slavery's role as a reason the war was fought.

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The Civil War has been over for 145 years. But in Virginia�the battles rage on. This week's fight has been over a fourth grade textbook. It claims that thousands of black soldiers joined the Confederate army. As Jacob Fenston reports, the controversy has called into question the way that Virginia approves textbooks.

JACOB FENSTON: It began when a fourth grade girl in Williamsburg came home with her new history textbook. Her mother started flipping through it.�

Professor CAROL SHERIFF (College of William and Mary): I immediately went to the chapter on the Civil War.

FENSTON: Carol Sheriff is a history professor at the College of William and Mary. She's written and taught about the Civil War.�

Prof. SHERIFF: Then I stumbled upon this one statement that said that African-American soldiers had fought under Stonewall Jackson, which I knew not to be true.

FENSTON: Sheriff says this is no small mistake.

Prof. SHERIFF: People who perpetuate the myth that African-American soldiers fought in large numbers for the Confederacy, that they fought in organized units for the Confederacy, are trying to deny the centrality of slavery to the Civil War.

FENSTON: The textbook is called "Our Virginia" and it's one of three state-approved history texts for fourth graders. The Virginia Department of Education was quick to distance itself from the book.�Charles Pyle is the department's spokesman.

Mr. CHARLES PYLE (Spokesman, Virginia Department of Education): The assertion that thousands of black Southerners fought for the Confederacy as uniformed armed soldiers, this would raise a red flag with the vast majority of our fourth-grade teachers.

FENSTON: The book in Virginia was approved by a committee of three fourth-grade teachers. And that's part of the problem here, says James Loewen. He's a sociology professor and author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Professor JAMES LOEWEN (Author, "Lies My Teacher Told Me"): They are not professional historians. They get flooded with these books over the summer. The typical American history textbook now has 1,152 pages in it. They don't read them. They look over them. If they look good, well, maybe they'll adopt them.

FENSTON: To pass in Virginia, books must line up with the state's standards of learning. In the case of fourth-grade history, the Civil War gets six bullet points.�

Prof. LOEWEN: I think this publisher and this author have that checklist when they write, so of course they're going to get checkmarks all the way down. This is not how you write history, though. It just plain isn't.

FENSTON: The book's author is not a professionally trained historian. Joy Masoff declined an interview, but earlier she told the Washington Post her information on black Confederates came in part from Internet research and work by the group Sons of Confederate Veterans.�

Mr. CHARLES KELLY BARROW (Sons of Confederate Veterans): Some people just don't like the truth.�

FENSTON: Charles Kelly Barrow is a member of the group.

Mr. BARROW: Some people are dead set that there was no black Confederate soldiers.

FENSTON: Barrow teaches history at a high school in Georgia. He also wrote a book called "Black Confederates."

Mr. BARROW: This was their home and they defended their home, just like anybody else who was being invaded.

FENSTON: But most professional historians dismiss the notion that African-Americans donned the Confederate uniform to defend the South. In fact, blacks were officially banned from serving until the last months of the war.

Carol Sheriff says one explanation for the error could be a misplaced attempt to be inclusive. In fact, the Virginia standards require a description of the roles played by whites, African-Americans and Indians during the Civil War.

Prof. SHERIFF: Even as we're striving for a harmonious present, we need to be careful that we then don't read back into the past a harmony that didn't exist back then.

FENSTON: The next edition of "Our Virginia" won't address the question of black Confederates. After a day of media bombardment, the publisher promised to remove the controversial sentence.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

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