Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced that Florida would block a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying the material advanced a “political agenda” on the “wrong side of the line” for the state.
This is only the latest in a series of attacks by GOP leaders on school curriculums in which they seek to replace inclusive histories with a sanitized, simplified and Eurocentric version of our nation’s past.
But deciding what students learn about the United States’ history of race and slavery was a contentious issue long before our current moment of fearmongering over critical race theory and other divisive topics. At the center of this history is an organization called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Beginning in the late 19th century, the UDC — a neo-Confederate organization that actively endorsed the Ku Klux Klan — made it its mission to instill a white supremacist version of history in generations of American children.
Even if you’ve never heard of the UDC, you are probably familiar with its work. Over a century ago, the UDC launched an offensive in the memory war over the history of slavery and the Civil War. The most visible results of its campaign are the hundreds of monuments to the Confederacy that still litter the landscape of the United States. Lurking in the shadow of these statues, however, is the less well-known history of how the UDC whitewashed history in public schools. Revisiting this history reveals how “Lost Cause” ideology was institutionalized in K-12 history education.
Throughout the 1870s, with the dismantling of Reconstruction — the period after the Civil War meant to secure political and economic opportunities for African Americans — White citizens successfully retook control of the political and social landscape of the South. During this time, several women’s memorial organizations ramped up their efforts to both honor the Confederate dead and to disseminate a version of history that celebrated the antebellum South. The need to reckon with the extreme loss they had experienced during the Civil War coalesced into a desire to vindicate the cause of the Confederacy as just and rationalize the antebellum racial order.
When the UDC was founded in 1894, it provided an enormously attractive opportunity for thousands of Southern women to exist in a socially acceptable public space. As a UDC member, a woman could develop professional skills like fundraising, lobbying and publishing yet still be considered a “Southern lady” because her work upheld the ideals of White supremacy. Though unable to vote until decades later, these women leveraged their elite social status, their familial connections to Confederate veterans and their avid support of the racial hierarchy to great effect in influencing state education policies. Ironically, it was a Reconstruction-era effort to implement widespread public education in the South that provided the most fertile ground for the UDC to cultivate what historian Karen Cox terms “Confederate Culture.”