Today’s guest columnist is Billy Field.
What’s the first history lesson you ever had?
For me, it was the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. “Yes, mother, I did chop down the cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie.”
Turns out, that story was not true. But parents didn’t tell it for historical fact, they told it for the moral lesson, the importance of telling the truth.
If parents think it is important for their children to tell the truth, then why is it not important, at least for some parents, that their children be taught the truth of history?
When I was in the 4th grade, in 1958, it was our year to learn Alabama history. Our textbook, Know Alabama, told stories about the glory of the antebellum South and the kindness and goodness of slavery. The writer described a day in the life for a young boy (white boy, of course), riding the plantation with his father, both on fine horses, waving to the happy slaves, with clean clothes and perfect teeth, smiling and waving back, content in their way of life.
None of this was true. Sure. There were probably some slave owners who were kindly toward those human beings that they owned, but for the most part, slavery was a living hell. But the elected officials in charge of the story, at least in 1958, wanted us to believe that our ancestors who owned slaves were kind to them and that it was, in some kind of Disney-like way, a good thing.
They taught us that segregation was what God intended, and that reconstruction following the Civil War was awful because of the carpet baggers from the north. But that problem was remedied by another group of brave men who rode by night, only because that’s what they had to do to protect our way of life.
Were the people who told us these stories bad people?
They were good people, mostly, telling us the same story that they had been told.
And I believe that the reason they told us these stories was because they wanted us to grow up to believe that we came from good and noble people so that we might grow up to be good and noble people, too.
There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a worthy cause.
But isn’t it also a worthy cause to tell our young people the truth?
Following the Civil War, Black men had the right to vote and did vote. In the 1870s in Eufaula Alabama, on election day, a group of Black men were marching toward the polls to vote when, along the way, they were ambushed by White men who shot 70 of them, then rode to the headquarters of the White Probate Judge, threw out all the votes that had been cast that day and then murdered the 16-year-old son of the White Probate Judge. None of these men were in any way ever implicated in that crime.
Not only did nobody tell us that story, I can’t find but a handful of people who have ever heard the story, including people from Eufaula.
In 1964, a new county courthouse was being built in Tuscaloosa. A promise had been made to the Black community that there would be no segregated facilities, no White and Colored bathrooms, no White and Colored water fountains. When the courthouse opened, George Wallace was there to cut the ribbon and — you guessed it — the courthouse had “White and Colored” everything.
When the Black community organized a peaceful protest to march to the courthouse, not only did the police show up with helmets and clubs, but the police had also sent letters out to Klan types inviting them to help keep the peace. The Klan types obliged. And on that day, which has come to be known as Bloody Tuesday, more people went to the hospital than went to the hospital on Bloody Sunday in Selma. More people went to jail that day than on Bloody Sunday in Selma, but yet this story has never been taught in any classroom — and few citizens of Tuscaloosa even know that it happened.
But yet now, when there is an effort among some in our state to teach the truth of the history of race in America, there’s enormous pushback.
Politicians and citizens are squalling that there will be no teaching “Critical Race Theory” in Alabama schools. Okay. I don’t even know what “Critical Race Theory” is, but I do know that we have an obligation to teach our young people the truth of history, not some myth that might make us feel better about who we are.
There are only so many generations to whom you can spoon-feed the myth until the truth is long forgotten.
And once the truth is forgotten, then we no longer know who we are.
If I haven’t convinced you, let George Orwell have a try. In his novel, 1984, the character Big Brother says,
“He who controls the past controls the future.”
“He who controls the present controls the past.”
I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want any elected official controlling the story of my past, because I don’t want any elected official controlling my future.
If you don’t want some elected official controlling your future, then you might think about the value of our young people learning the truth of history, not the myth, even though some of that truth might not be pleasant to hear.
The fictitious story of George Washington and the cherry tree might be okay for a five-year-old, because of the value of the moral lesson. But like The Bible says in First Corinthians, “There comes a time to put away childish things.”
There comes a time to teach our young people the truth of history because it is on that truth that we build our house on solid ground.
It is on that truth that we build our democracy on solid ground.
Billy Field is one of the last people on earth to see the meteor shoot across the sky on November 30, 1954, crash through Ann Hodges’ roof, bounce off her floor radio and hit her on her buttocks, making her famous. Billy sold that story to 20th Century Fox. He has written for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and the TV series FAME for MGM. He taught screenwriting and documentary film production at The University of Alabama. His student’s films, dealing with Alabama history and Alabama biography, are on their website at LightsCameraAlabama.com. Billy is now building a website designed to tell stories of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, focusing on the work of Alabama Civil Rights lawyer Chuck Morgan.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.