Massachusetts textbook removed for downplaying slavery

A group of slaves on a South Carolina plantation in 1962.
A group of slaves on a South Carolina plantation in 1962.

The battle over school textbook content continued this week in Brookline, Massachusetts. A fifth-grade history book which allegedly downplays the horrors of slavery in America, has been removed from local schools there following widespread criticism. 

The 2003 edition of “Harcourt Horizons: United States History” contains this line: “Slaves were treated well or cruelly, depending on their owners. Some planters took pride in being fair and kind to their slaves.”

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“What bothers me about this book is the way we’re teaching about racism,” lawyer and activist Brooke Ames said at a Nov. 13 meeting over the book, according to The Boston Globe. “Slavery was a racist system. It was a cruel system. It was an evil system. And when you start talking about good slave owners and bad slave owners and happy slaves and slaves that weren’t so happy you’re completely missing the point. And the fact that this textbook was in our schools for 10 years is a system failure.”

Superintendent Bill Lupini confirmed that the textbooks were being pulled from all the area's public schools just days after the meeting. “Materials are still being provided to teachers from other parts of the book, for now,” Lupini said.

Jennifer Berlin, a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the textbook’s publisher, has defended their product, pointing out that the 2003 edition was out of date. “We appreciate the concerns expressed by parents about the language in the edition of ‘US History’ used by the Brookline public schools. That language was changed in later editions to reflect more strongly the overall suffering slaves experienced,” Berlin told the Globe.

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Meanwhile, feuds over textbook content have been ongoing around the country in recent years. In 2010, Virginia distributed a new history book, written by a non-historian, whose section on the Civil War told students: “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” The claim, whose source was the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has been dismissed by most mainstream historians. And this year in Texas, textbooks have come under fire for suggesting Jim Crow era segregation wasn't all that bad, while editorializing about the tax code.

Earlier this month, 43 textbooks manufactured in Texas were subject to review by the state's Board of Education. According to many impartial observers, the books were riddled with errors and overtly Christian rhetoric.

“Unfortunately, if that’s what’s students are going to be learning in Texas, students around the country will be learning it soon enough,” said one critic of the textbooks, Dan Quinn of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN).