In the early 1990s, two Alabama historians tried to write textbooks that defied Lost Cause myths and gave detailed accounts of Reconstruction.
But their ventures would cost them more than just time and money.
“I learned way more than I ever wanted to learn about textbooks, and way more than I ever wanted to learn about Alabama politics,” said Robert Norrell, a former University of Alabama history professor and textbook publisher.
Experts have pointed out that a national debate about “critical race theory” – which is often connected to critiques of one book in particular, The 1619 Project – contain echoes of prior debates about whether evolution and sex ed should be taught in schools.
“The people who want to prevent people from learning about the past, they were very organized.”
Robert Norrell, a former University of Alabama history professor and textbook publisher
In Alabama, it hits even closer to home for Norrell, whose Alabama history books were taught in classrooms up until the early 2000s, when he said he no longer had the energy to fight conservative groups opposed to his accounts of slavery and Jim Crow. And to date, no district has taken historian Richard Bailey up on his offer to provide free copies of his book on Reconstruction.
“There was always a group or two that wanted [social studies books] to stay as we had had it previously,” said Ed Richardson, who led the state department of education at the time. “No matter what has happened since then to correct that part of history.”
Republican lawmakers are currently pushing a pair of bills, SB292 and HB312, that would stop educators from “compelling” students to believe certain theories about race, gender and religion. The effort mirrors a series of actions this fall by the state school board, which voted to ban CRT in K-12 schools and recently postponed a review of its social studies standards for several years.
It’s not the first time Alabama officials, educators, parents and politicians have battled over school textbooks and how to discuss history. After Reconstruction, the United Daughters of the Confederacy curated narratives about Confederate heroes. The first state history textbooks defended segregation. And at the end of the 20th century, groups like the Eagle Forum left a growing imprint on education policy in the state.
“It is a continuation or even a recreation of the 90s,” said Wayne Flynt, a retired Alabama history professor. “People who in that time wanted to have books make a ton of money for them as public school adoptions had to understand: That was not an educational process. It was not an intellectual process. It was not a historical process. It was a political process.”
A ‘much larger movement’
Political interest in textbook content waned in the 80s, Flynt said. But then, throughout the 90s and 2000s, as Republican politicians gained power, textbook publishers and school board members found themselves in the midst of numerous debates over how children should learn about social issues and scientific theories.
Richardson, who served as state superintendent until 2004, attributed the heightened scrutiny to a crackdown on school performance.
“The fact that questions were being raised as to what’s going on in education, that would cause a number of people to look at textbooks and curriculum and behavior and special education,” he said. “There just were a number of issues that were bubbling because of the numerous reports that came out in the 80s about the inadequacies of public schools.”
Eunie Smith, who founded the Eagle Forum of Alabama in 1976 and was its longest-serving president, viewed the group’s attention to textbooks as one of its most influential efforts. The Forum helped amend the textbook law to expand people who served on the state committee. They also recruited scores of textbook reviewers, ranging from “interested citizens” to engineers at the power company. They then presented that information to a textbook committee, who voted to approve or reject materials.
“It was a big issue because we felt we had a responsibility,” Smith said.
Leslie Whitcomb, an Eagle Forum board member who worked with Glencoe Publishing in 1998, said she felt the updated committee provided more rigor and balance. Some of her company’s books got rejected, she said, but she stressed that the committee was fair and always gave specific reasons for their decisions.
“I did feel like it was both, it was not just books that maybe would be considered more in the CRT line today,” she said. “It was everything. They just rejected a lot of books.”
Flynt, who has written extensively on religious politics in the state, said a “much larger movement” of evangelical Christian groups like the Eagle Forum banded together in what he called an attempt to “stop the secularization of America.”
“From the 1990s on, the question of how good your history is became secondary to how completely did you conform to Alabama culture,” Flynt said.
According a Birmingham News article from 1998, some authors were also asked to complete a survey questioning their position on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and other topics.
“Do your book, materials and illustrations pander to political correctness? How do you deal with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” the questionnaire asked.
‘I just wanted to publish books’
A visit to his daughter’s fourth-grade classroom in the late 1980s was enough to convince Norrell, then a history professor at the University of Alabama, to start his own textbook company.
“I thought, ‘My god, this is horrible,’ he said, noting that the chosen textbook was boring and didn’t engage his daughter, who was an avid reader. “I thought, ‘You know, this is a real travesty, and I’m going to do something about this if I can.’”
Back then, local districts had four Alabama history textbooks they could choose from for fourth and ninth-graders, including a version of “Know Alabama.” The book’s original 1960′s version, historians say, was vetted by the UDC, contained terms like the “War Between the States” and was notorious for justifying Klan violence and romanticizing slavery.
Norrell spent years writing and researching about African American soldiers fighting to end slavery, efforts to end convict leasing and the long history of Klan terrorism. He published photos of enslaved Alabamians that didn’t just feature their feet or dilapidated barracks, but the expressions of their faces. And he said he spent $100,000 of his own money to ensure those stories got into the hands of Alabama children.
Norrell sold more than 30,000 copies of his Alabama history textbooks, he said, which included “The Alabama Story,” “The Making of Modern Alabama” and “The Alabama Journey.”
But things changed after he moved to Knoxville in 1998. By then, skeptics had begun to write him off for hiring a lobbyist to fight his battles at the state school board, he said, but he felt it was a necessary move to keep his books on the shelf.
“The people who want to prevent people from learning about the past, they were very organized,” he said.
“Alabama Journey,” his first full-color book, published in 1998, was a big hit, and was eventually adopted by nearly half of Alabama school systems. Then, he said, he felt targeted by the Eagle Forum.
The Forum did hold presentations at the time about textbooks and preserving a Christian, Western view of American history. Members remember discussing social issues, though not necessarily Alabama history or Norrell’s book in particular, and dispute a characterization that Norrell was targeted by the founder of Birmingham’s chapter. Members did care about having good textbooks, Joan Kendall, a member who dealt with education issues at the time, said.
“Those that were not the best books were either boring, manipulative, biased, unscholarly – and I’m sure there were other reasons, but those were the more objective reasons why a book we would feel was not in the best interest of children of Alabama,” she said. “But I can assure you, I have a pretty good memory, and I don’t remember Frances Wideman ever objecting to a textbook, or that book ever being an issue.”
In 1998, a committee rejected Norrell’s book, “An Alabama Story,” along with a life skills series. Board member Stephanie Bell, who currently serves on the state Board of Education, objected to language about welfare and birth control, as well as an error about the Battle of Shiloh in the history book.
The state school board later approved the history book.
“We came to the conclusion that it was important to teach all of Alabama history – good, bad and indifferent – and depend upon the teachers to do it in an appropriate way,” said Bradley Byrne, who served on the board at the time. “And that we felt like that textbook could be a tool, not necessarily had to be a tool, but could be a tool to help teachers do that.”
But the ordeal was enough to discourage Norrell from fighting for his new fourth-grade book in the next adoption cycle, and eventually, none of his books were state-recommended anymore.
“There was no recourse. I knew that,” he said. “I didn’t have any fight left.”
A forgotten era
In 1901, John William Beverly became the first Black author to have an Alabama history textbook approved by the state. It took another century for Bailey, a Montgomery-based historian, to become the second.
“What I have found is that there is a genuine interest, at some level, for Alabama history,” Bailey said. “But the follow through is not there.”
Bailey went to a segregated school named for Booker T. Washington, but said he was taught little about the Black Alabamians who made his own education possible. History instruction at the time, he said, barely touched on Reconstruction or any other events that would have challenged positive views of slavery and segregation.
He recalled the black and green lettering of the original “Know Alabama” textbook, which he read as a Montgomery fourth-grader in the 1950s.
“It didn’t mention anything about Nat Turner, that’s for sure,” he said.
“You wouldn’t have said anything about a slave getting whipped, or a slave trying to run away,” he added. “You wouldn’t dare mention anything about that.”
According to Hilary Green, an associate history professor at the University of Alabama, some Alabama teachers at the time had practiced “fugitive pedagogy,” meaning they built classroom libraries or came up with alternative assignments to teach Black history and other topics that were ignored or misrepresented in state-approved textbooks.
But that practice wasn’t widespread, and educational politics continued to prevent a variety of texts from getting approved.
“Textbooks were all about your politics, and all about how you felt about race,” Flynt said, recounting one textbook, a ninth-grade companion to “Know Alabama,” that showcased a Confederate battle flag on its front cover.
Bailey’s curiosity led him to write the first known comprehensive report on Reconstruction in Alabama, “Neither Carpetbaggers Nor Scalawags.” In 1993, nearly a century after the state adopted Beverly’s “History of Alabama,” an Alabama textbook committee approved Bailey’s book alongside Norrell’s.
“Having books dealing with African Americans just wasn’t in vogue at the time.”
Richard Bailey, a historian
The 300-page report was supplemental. But it quickly garnered international recognition, and Bailey felt it was a crucial addition to instruction on one of the most important, he said, eras in Alabama history.
“It was a period of jubilee for African Americans,” he said. “And for a person of my generation or the generation preceding me to learn about Reconstruction – that person would have grown up with a huge sense of pride.”
So each year, he drove to a different corner of the state, hoping to convince school librarians and district leaders to buy his book. He called lobbyists and estimated that he mailed about 81 copies of the book to systems statewide.
But decades later, he said, not a single school has adopted it.
“I’m not pointing fingers, but it just didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “And I think part of that was that having books dealing with African Americans just wasn’t in vogue at the time.”
‘Much worse of a situation’
Today, Norrell worries that those who opposed him decades ago for writing “honestly about the Civil War” are again empowered to limit discussions on race and racism in the classroom.
“And you know, that’s pretty much where we are right now,” he said. “This critical race theory bullshit – It’s just about the same thing.”
This summer, Eagle Forum of Alabama advertised meetings in a handful of towns across the state, where they invited conservative experts to speak to mostly white audiences about “critical race theory” and how to identify it. State officials have received complaints about Black History Month events and a teacher diversity training.
CRT isn’t taught in K-12 schools, state leaders say, but conservative groups across the state have used the term in broad reference to diversity, equity and behavioral practices in schools.
Smith, with the Forum, agrees that the two time periods are linked — and she believes conservative concerns today are warranted.
“It’s some of the same that parents are concerned about now,” Smith said of textbook debates in the 90s. “But the infusion of social emotional learning and critical race theory, it’s just throughout all areas of the academic disciplines, and that is very concerning. And we didn’t see that back then.”
For Bailey, the worry is less about what might get taken out of Alabama classrooms – it’s about what is rarely mentioned at all. If discussion of Reconstruction is often squished into a small section of one semester, he said, many students fail to learn about the first Black banks, or Black schools, or even the significance of labor unions and churches to Alabama’s history.
“We came to the conclusion that it was important to teach all of Alabama history – good, bad and indifferent – and depend upon the teachers to do it in an appropriate way.”
Bradley Byrne, a former Alabama state school board member
Instead, he said, many are left with traditional interpretations of the period, which tend to reduce African Americans to tropes: That Black officeholders were ignorant, that they couldn’t read and write, that they were merely tools of the Republican Party.
“I am convinced that we are in much worse of a situation today,” he said. “…You don’t discuss Black success, Black achievement.”
As anti-CRT bills advance in the legislature, even former textbook publishers, like Whitcomb, say they’re not sure what the impact will be.
“Are we just not going to teach history at all in our schools in Alabama?” she said. “…I’m not sure how that’s going to play out and what they’re going to do about that.”
Former superintendents and board members said school boards should expect pressure if the bills pass, but not let it get in the way of classroom instruction.
“You can’t have a rational discussion about racial issues in Alabama or across America if you don’t know the facts, and we need our children to know the facts,” Byrne said.
This story was produced by The Alabama Education Lab at AL.com and reprinted with permission. Rebecca Griesbach is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and contribute here. To learn more about The Alabama Education Lab and receive notifications about stories and events, sign up for its newsletter, Ed Chat.