Commentary: Why Haven’t Publishers Apologized for Their Books That Glorify Slavery?
When the battle over the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va. claimed a life last August, the nation faced again the vital and deep fissures around Confederate legacies and racism. There is another place to look for remnants of the Confederacy and the years of segregation that followed: the bookshelves of libraries around the United States.
Such histories populate library shelves all over America. Perhaps there should be apologies and reparative action from the publishers that printed, promoted, circulated, and profited from materials that served to legitimate Jim Crow and racist domestic terrorism. For instance, Doubleday and Page (now an imprint of Knopf), published Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1905. It told a story of corrupt and brutal Yankees and recently freed slaves taking over the government of a southern state and then stealing and assaulting the virtuous and helpless white citizens in the wake of the Civil War. The Clansman, which influenced the nation when D.W. Griffith made it into the movie The Birth of a Nation in 1915, spurred the growth of the second Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.
Stretching back to before the Civil War, the great Philadelphia house J.B. Lippincott published a proslavery book by a University of Virginia professor, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, in 1856 and another one by Louisiana lawyer George Sawyer in 1859. Lippincott existed into the 1970s when it was acquired by Harper & Row.
D. Appleton & Company published a history of western civilization in 1852 by Thomas Dew, a leading proslavery professor at The College of William & Mary, whose thesis was that property and slavery led the way for civilization. That textbook was in print into the 1890s. And Appleton later published Yale history professor U.B. Phillips’ American Negro Slavery in 1918. It depicted a distorted vision of slavery as not so bad and the enslaved themselves as relatively happy. Appleton continued into the 1970s when it was purchased by Prentice Hall.
Unsurprisingly, the academic presses led the way in the early 20th century. In 1914, Columbia University Press published a study of North Carolina during Reconstruction by J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton that depicted the Klan in positive terms—as upholding the rule of law. Those academic interpretations were becoming mainstream in popular history books. In 1929, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Claude G. Bowers’ The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln, which continued the picture established by Thomas Dixon of corrupt Northerners mistreating the South in the wake of Civil War. That book remained in print for decades; the last Houghton Mifflin edition was in 1962.
Books on history and the social sciences supported eugenics at home and colonialism abroad. In 1916, Scribner, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster, published Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History, which argued that northern Europeans were declining in numbers relative to other populations and used this to support a call for eugenics. Scribner also published Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy in 1920. Stoddard played to fears of white Americans in the wake of World War I that the era of white supremacy was coming to a conclusion. He saw the world war as fragmenting white supremacy. Stoddard feared that as European powers fought among themselves, other races gained power. This ideology framed the United States’ policies toward immigration for decades.
These books set in motion ideas that constrained our nation’s vision of race and law and continue to cast a long shadow over our nation’s narratives of race and equality. Those who were educated on such ideas held power for decades, institutionalizing their visions and methods, and training generations of scholars. The presses that are responsible for putting these ideas into the stream of public consciousness owe an acknowledgment of their complicity. Moreover, an excavation of these books, and their contemporary uses, can shed light on the legacies of Confederate ideologies of the past, and we may recognize the echoes of their words in the present.
Institutions throughout the country, from Congress, to universities, newspapers, and insurance companies, are acknowledging their connections to the ideologies of slavery and segregation. Yet, the businesses so directly responsible for the dissemination of these ideologies have so far not been involved in the investigation of their legacies. We need the book publishers who have been responsible for promulgating ideas of white supremacy to acknowledge their role in creating the social world of today.
Alfred Brophy holds the Paul and Charlene Chair in law at the University of Alabama. Autumn Barrett is visiting professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.