When it Comes to Teaching History, There Are Lessons for All to Learn

Mount Vernon, the home of America's first president, is seen in Virgina in February 2011.

Whose version of history is worthy to be taught in U.S. schools?

Well, that might depend on your point of view—or your politics. If some conservative lawmakers have their way, only a scrubbed and polished version of our nation’s past will pass muster.

According to ThinkProgress’ Judd Legum, a legislative committee in the Oklahoma House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to ban the Advanced Placement history curriculum in the state’s public high schools. These lawmakers are alarmed by what some of them believe is a too liberal version of history being forced-fed to innocent children. Oklahoma State Rep. Dan Fisher (R) introduced the legislation and was quoted in the Tulsa World saying his bill is necessary because the state’s Advanced Placement, or AP, U.S. history course framework puts too much emphasis on “what is bad about America.”

I can imagine that Fisher—who belongs to an organization known as the “Black Robe Regiment,” a group that believes “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists”—would object to Oklahoma high school students learning the story of Oney “Ona” Maria Judge.

In fact, I doubt Fisher or any of the Oklahoma lawmakers supporting his bill have ever heard of Judge or her fascinating life, which adds layers of contradictions to the more familiar history of our nation’s first president and confounds simple thinking about the complexity of slavery.

Indeed, until this week’s ongoing observances of President’s Day and Black History Month, I might never have heard of Judge either. We know of her story, not because it’s taught alongside the Valley Forge or cherry tree tales of the father of our nation. Rather, Judge’s story and her connection to the first president are made real because historians have researched her life from the pages of early American newspaper accounts. Some conservative lawmakers want to prevent AP history teachers from passing down this invaluable knowledge to future generations.

Writing on Monday in The New York Times, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, an associate professor of black studies and history at the University of Delaware, shared the little-known history of the runaway slave who helped to define President George Washington and opened a new line of historical insight into Washington’s conflicted views of slavery.

As Dunbar writes, Judge was a house slave on the president’s Mount Vernon estate and attended personally to the president’s wife, Martha. During the president’s second term, as they lived temporarily in Philadelphia, Judge slipped away in May 1796, never to return to the Washington’s employ.

Somehow, Judge learned of Martha Washington’s plan to give her away as a wedding gift to a granddaughter. Judge wanted no part of that and stole away to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where some 360 free black people lived outside the reach of slavery. The president was furious at what he perceived as Judge’s ingratitude, telling his Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott that “the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs. Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.”

But, as Dunbar writes, the most powerful man in Colonial America pursued her for three years without success. “Twelve weeks before his death, Washington was still actively pursuing her,” Dunbar says, “but with the help of close allies, Judge managed to eluded his slave-catching grasp.”

I learned of this story after Atlanta Journal and Constitution columnist Jay Bookman wrote about it and drew a straight-line connection to the efforts of conservative lawmakers who want their history served up neat and without extraneous facts or messy contradictions. Bookman wrote:

The story that Judge tells of Washington complicates our image of the man. He comes off as petty and vindictive, reducing another human being’s natural desire for freedom to an act of personal betrayal and unfaithfulness. Decades later, Judge also reported “that the stories told of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation (emphasis original). Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”

The once-overlooked story of Ona Judge is now being taught in many American history classes, including Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. It’s the story of a woman living in a time when women were once all but invisible to history; it’s the story of a black person who was condemned to slavery by individuals whom we celebrate for their ideal that ‘all men are created equal,’ and it’s the story of a person who bucked the system and defied the fate that others tried to impose on her.

What could be more American than that?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the way some modern-day American lawmakers see our nation’s history, and they don’t want anyone learning such negative details about the nation’s great men. There’s a regrettable trend that’s sweeping across the more regressive regions of the land, as conservative school board members in Colorado are demanding that AP history course become “more patriotic” and for teachers to only teach lessons “depicting American heritage in a positive light, and effectively ban any material that could lead to dissent.”

In North Carolina and South Carolina, conservative activists have sought to persuade the College Board, a private organization that certifies high school AP courses for college credits, to exclude any material with what they deem to be an ideological bias, including evolution or black history.

And in Georgia, a resolution introduced in the state Senate argues for changes in the AP history framework because it pushes “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” including the role played by religion. Supporters in Georgia want the College Board to change history so that it is more patriotic and emphasizes “America’s founding principles and the uniqueness of America’s role in the world.”

In the unlikely event that the College Board acquiesces to these mossback demands and state school boards stop teaching AP history, high school students in these backward-looking states would have a more difficult time getting college credits. That alone would be tragic.

But it could be far worse: If the reactionary forces succeed, Judge’s story might never be taught. And, if that were to happen, something more valuable than one black slave woman’s struggle for freedom and dignity would be threatened. Valuable lessons would be ripped out and destroyed from the pages of our nation’s history.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.