For all the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War, the one that received the most publicity involved a fourth grade teacher at Sewells Point Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia, who thought holding a mock slave auction in her classroom would be educational. Her activity that allowed whites to buy students of color was educational, but only for what it has taught us in its aftermath.
First, the mock slave auction taught us that -- if we weren’t already aware after the incessant debates of the past two years -- America has yet to become a color-blind society. Second, and most important, the auction provided a teachable moment for the majority of Americans who believe the Civil War was fought over state’s rights, or the right of the states to enslave people.
A Pew poll released this week showed that 48 percent of Americans say that the Civil War was "mainly about states' rights." Of Americans under 30, 60 percent agree with that statement. Sadly, as educational standards are revised across the country, this misunderstanding will only become more compounded.
Last year, when the Texas Board of Education adopted new standards, it tackled the Civil War by requiring that students read the inauguration address of Jefferson Davis alongside the Emancipation Proclamation and that eighth graders “explain the issues surrounding causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery." In Virginia, we discovered that a fourth-grade textbook was teaching that thousands of African Americans fought willingly for the South only months after Governor Bob McDonnell had proclaimed Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery.
This past week, Edward Ayers, an American Studies scholar, President of the University of Richmond and former Dean of the College at UVA, was asked by his daughter, “Daddy, what caused the Civil War?”
After careful consideration, he responded. ‘Slavery, honey.’ ”
It’s time that we all have that conversation. And we don't need to hold slave auctions to facilitate it, either.