Please note: Included below are links to two historical resources that include graphic language and racial slurs.
When you visit Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, two of the first objects you’ll see are books: The First Dixie Reader, used in the South, and The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom, used in the North. Both were likely used in schools to teach children to read; both were published in 1864, during the American Civil War; and both discuss slavery. However, the lessons on slavery in each book are completely different. According to curator Lily Wong, the books help “set the stage” for the exhibition, which explores “both the stunning advances [in rights and freedoms for African Americans] and equally stunning reversals that unfold in the 50 years after the end of slavery.” Wong continues:
We wanted to convey how drastically different attitudes about slavery were in the North and South—not just among political leaders, but also among everyday people and in their everyday objects. The lessons being taught to children are so clear on this subject. The primer from the South paints a benevolent picture of slavery. The primer from the North, on the other hand, portrays the agonies of slavery.
Let’s dig a little deeper into these two books and the messages they send about slavery.
The First Dixie Reader
The First Dixie Reader is formatted as a book of reading lessons. While many of these lessons are about mundane elements of life—like animals, the sun, or a straw hat—one tells the story of a stereotyped enslaved man named ‘Uncle Ned.’ Wong explained that Uncle Ned is a stock character from the time. “In a popular song from the 1840s, ‘Uncle Ned’ was a blind and docile slave,” Wong explains. “In The First Dixie Reader, ‘Uncle Ned’ flees to Union lines, but then feeling mistreated in the North, returns to his ‘kind master.’”
Starting in the 1850s, white Southerners began a movement to write and publish schoolbooks that would affirm slavery in order to teach the next generation to admire and uphold the institution. Marinda Branson Moore, author of The First Dixie Reader, was a schoolteacher who answered this call, writing several types of schoolbooks before her death at age 35 in 1864. In her various books, she used language she felt was suitable for “little ones” to teach kids to sympathize with the Confederacy. She applauded Southern states for seceding and railed against the “miserable and hellish Yankee Nation” for treading upon Southern rights and causing bloodshed. She layered her own opinions, heavily influenced by her religious values, with facts and outright lies to paint a distorted picture of slavery as an institution that mutually benefited whites and blacks, rather than the violent and oppressive system that it truly was.
Here is a fascinating New York Times article from 1865 in which a shocked and disgusted reporter lengthily quotes one of Moore’s biased accounts of the causes and progress of the Civil War. The reporter ends the article by wondering “how far the prejudices thus implanted in youthful minds will develop themselves.” Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow traces exactly how those prejudices developed in the first 50 years after slavery ended.
The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom
The Gospel of Slavery differs in many ways from The First Dixie Reader. Written by the Universalist minister Abel C. Thomas under the pen name Iron Gray, it was a more elaborate take on the “Abolitionist Alphabet,” a popular educational and fundraising tool written by white, female abolitionists decades earlier. Similar to its predecessor, The Gospel of Slavery assigned a slavery-related word to each letter of the alphabet accompanied by a poem, an image, and prose commentary. The words and images detailed the horrors of slavery in language directed at largely white, middle-class abolitionist youth.
For example, “B is for Bloodhound” discusses and depicts dogs tracking down and attacking an enslaved person who has escaped. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society sold one such alphabet booklet to raise money in 1846. In a report on the sale of the alphabets and other goods in 1847, it was hoped that the alphabet would “sow Anti-Slavery seed in the heart of many a child who, in future years, will plead that his ‘brother of a darker hue’ may have an ‘equal liberty’ with himself.”
Though written for a white audience, this book may have found its way into schools started by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. Freed people could not initially produce their own textbooks, but they eagerly clamored for any books they could get. Enslaved people were largely forbidden from learning to read and write, though some found ways to gain this knowledge.
Prioritizing Education after the Civil War
Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow explores how education became a priority in African American communities after slavery ended. One object on view in the exhibition—a sculpture called “Uncle Ned’s School” created by white abolitionist John Rogers—turns the Uncle Ned stereotype from The First Dixie Reader on its head. Wong notes that artist John Rogers does a different take on the character. By now, slavery has been abolished. This “Uncle Ned” is teaching children to read.
Wong also advises young Museum visitors to explore other artifacts in the exhibition in comparison to the portrayals of slavery in the two school books discussed here. She recommends looking out for two things in particular:
First is the painting A Bit of War History by Thomas Waterman Wood. It shows one man over time—first as a runaway slave, second as a volunteer in the Union Army, and third as a veteran who had helped win the war. Like in the two primers, we begin with a fugitive slave, but think about what the rest of the story here is about the role of African Americans in the Civil War. Second is a pair of slave shackles that were removed in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. Why is this important?
Explore these objects and much more with your family in Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, on view through March 3, 2019. When you do, we hope you’ll use the Family Discussion Cards available at the exhibition entrance to help guide your visit.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum