[Green high school in a Midwestern city]*, a small, crowded building set quite unpretentiously (for an American high school), [is] in a neighborhood once almost entirely Jewish, now almost entirely black….This is not, however, a slum school. No place in America is positively good for a black, but [this Midwestern city] seems to be about the least bad. The parents of many of these students make a lower-middle-class income or better, the atmosphere in Green’s halls is as free as it is in Scarsdale’s, and the attitude toward education seems to have no more than the usual degree of suspicion. Still, these children are black, part of an actively repressed minority group. As seen on a very brief visit, Green would seem to be considerable of an accomplishment. One history class provided evidence that students here are learning more than just social studies: when the teacher made reference to “The Mar-see-yay,” a mutter of “Mar-say-yez” rose from around the borders of the room.
The teacher in this American History class is a hawk-nosed, lean crew-cut young man named [Leon Pierson] … a teacher with a personal devotion to history. He balances American History around the Civil War for teaching purposes, but he does so out of respect, not contempt, for his black students. He begins the class by handing out ‘’a very short reading list—on which there will be no comments.” Then he writes four names on the board:
James Ford Rhodes
“We’ll take these names to represent historians’ views [on the cause of the Civil War]. You’ll remember Beard’s thesis—‘the clash between the Lords of the Lash and the Lords of the Loom.’ There were only 347,000 slave owners in the South, 3,500,000 who didn’t own slaves. Now, how many of you would say slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Let’s divide it three ways here—Beardians, Stampps, and Fanatics [Rhodes believed that pro- and anti-slavery fanatics caused the War]. The class shows five Beardians, thirteen Stampps, and three Fanatics, with nine keeping their hands down.
“I know,” [Pierson] says, “there are some of you who say, “There’s a little bit of each.’ That’s fine. My opinion is that it was slavery. You’ve got to remember, though, that the facts don’t change—historians’ opinions change. You have a glass of water; you can say it’s half full or half empty, it’s up to you.”
A boy contributes, “I’ve read Olmstead, and I think he’s right. It was a clash of nations. It wasn’t economic , it was social.”
“All right,” [Pierson] says, “Now, I say I could have prevented the Civil War. With Lincoln’s ideas—what was that?”
A girl says, “Compensated emancipation.”
“What does that mean?”
“Buy the slaves from the southerners and set them free.”
“Would it have worked? Would it have prevented the Civil War?
The class groans, “No.”
A number of ideas are thrown forth—the Northerners didn’t want to spend the money, you couldn’t set a price, the whole system was based on slaves. A girl says, “The Southerners wouldn’t do it because it would make the blacks equal to them.”
“Let’s get back to Beard,” [Pierson] says. “Here. Less than ten percent of the Southerners owned slaves, but they all fought for slavery. How could they persuade the ninety percent to fight? You try it.” He addresses two black girls and one boy seated at his extreme left. “You’re the slave owners. The rest of the class doesn’t own slaves. You persuade them to fight for you.”
One girl, giggling, tries, “Those Yankees, they want to come down and take everything away from you.”
“Oh, no, they don’t,” [Pierson] says. “Just from you. I don’t have anything they want.”
“Our whole economy is based on slaves,” says the boy.
“No, sir,” says a boy in the non-slaveholding section, falling into the spirit of the situation. “My economy isn’t. I got to do my own work.”
The debate rages for a while, [Pierson] grinning over it, objecting where the 90 percent can’t find a reply. “Come on, now, “ he says. “Why will these four million fight for four years? If you can’t come up with this, class, the whole thing is completely unreal, just something in a textbook.”
Finally, in the heat of the argument, one of the black girls in the slaveholding section comes up with, “Remember those slave rebellions? Remember what happened on those plantations? The Yankees will come down here and raise up those [slaves] to be your equals, and there will be no controlling them.” The class roars with laughter at her, and she bends her head.
“Let’s give it a name,” [Pierson] says. He writes on the board,” WHITE SUPREMACY.”
He asks, “Any of you ever hear of U.B. Phillip?”
One boy has read it, and says, “He thinks that’s the whole theme of Southern history.”
The one white boy in the class, a West Virginia redneck, now makes his contribution: “You can find reasons all you like,” he says. “I think they fought because they were told to fight.”
[Pierson] says, “Maybe. Now when we discuss Reconstuction, we’ll find this same argument of White Supremacy used to justify …what? Anybody know?”
And a black [student] says, ”Segregation.”
*I changed the names of the school and teacher.
DISCLOSURES ABOUT THIS JOURNALIST’S ACCOUNT OF LESSON:
The journalist was Martin Mayer. The year was 1962. I was the teacher and taught this class at Glenville high school in Cleveland (OH). The full unabridged account of the lesson with actual names appeared in Martin Mayer, Where, When, and Why: Social Studies in American Schools (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 157-160.
The question I want to take up in the next post is: In writing about how I taught history a half-century ago–see earlier post–what do I do with this report of a class I taught when my memory of the lesson conflicts with Martin Mayer’s?