A Strange Turn in the Virginia Textbook Debate

By now there’s been plenty of commentary in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the controversy concerning statements included in a Virginia history textbook used in fourth grade classrooms.  The controversy highlights assertions made that blacks fought for the Confederacy, including two battalions of black Confederate soldiers that supposedly served under Stonewall Jackson.

In this case the author of the textbook admitted that her research relied upon websites associated with the Sons of Confederate Veterans; her ability to make sense of those claims has come under scrutiny, as had the review process employed in Virginia for textbook adoption, where, for some reason, historians do not participate in the selection of textbooks (note: the participation of a historian might not have affected the outcome, given who defines themselves as a historian and what interpretations they might espouse).

The publisher responded to this controversy by deciding to omit the passage in question, in part by handing out stickers that could be used to cover the passage in question in published copies.

Now comes word that a history teacher in Virginia has filed a lawsuit to stop this process.  I found that somewhat bizarre, not because of her objection to the process, but because of the means used to object.  How, exactly, can anyone but the author file a lawsuit against a publisher for that publisher’s decision to edit material in a book that said publisher publishes?  It would seem that the grounds for complaint against the state and local boards of education would proceed upon a different basis, but suing publishers over editorial decisions seems to be something an author might do.  I look for enlightenment here.

The complaint itself (a petition for an injunction) can be read here. More information on the petitioner can be found here.

The petitioner claims she is gathering research and witnesses to prove that blacks served in the Confederate army.  Now, I know it’s coming upon Halloween, but witnesses? Who is alive today who witnessed the Civil War?  Oh, sure, you’ll now tell me she’s gathering expert testimony.  But that’s not what she said, and legal documents require careful wording.  In addition, the petitioner sees as relevant the race of a professor who moved to question the book’s content.  Surely it would have been better to stick to the facts instead of implying that this is a racially-motivated plot.

The petitioner also shifts the grounds of the debate a bit.  She never does say she’s going to document the existence of two battalions in Stonewall Jackson’s command.  What she insists is that there were blacks who served in Confederate ranks.  There’s nothing about the terms of service, the capacity in which they served, their willingness to serve, etc.  So there’s some evidence of people talking past each other.

In short, the petition could have used a little revision (and perhaps a few stickers) as well.  But this should be interesting, because it may prove to be a Pandora’s Box for all concerned.

Comments (4) to “A Strange Turn in the Virginia Textbook Debate”

  1. Information about the plaintiff can be found here:

    http://www.styleweekly.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=CECFC6A744AB40D6B029FEFD6C403DC7

  2. I have no idea what the plaintiff’s cause of action is here. One of the requirements for granting an injunction is to show likliehood of prevailing on the merits of a lawsuit. Yet here, it seems that there isn’t even a cause of action alleged, either under common law or under a statute or regulation. How could the court even order the injunction if one of the key criteria is not met?

    In addition, if the court were to prohibit such an edit by a private publishing company, then isn’t the government itself limiting the right of free speech by the publisher?

    As we heard in law school, any one can sue, but not everyone can win.

  3. I agree that it’s puzzling and frustrating that the publisher did not appear to include historians in its writing or vetting process. (It did include a number of Virginia Indians, among them a colleague of mine at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.)

    Writing for fourth-graders is no small challenge, and by and large the textbook does it well, but there are numerous errors throughout — so many that it suggests to me that the author and publisher were simply not familiar with the basic history.

    Sir Walter Raleigh, for instance, did not travel to Roanoke; 1607 was not the first time Europeans and Virginia Indians met; the First Battle of Bull Run was not in 1862; the combined casualties of First and Second Bull Run were not 6,000; the vast majority of free blacks did not find the decision of whether to support the Confederacy “tough”; and Virginia’s public schools did not become fully integrated in 1963, et al.

    That said, I’ve communicated with the publisher and received very encouraging, non-defensive responses, suggesting that they plan to re-review the entire book — not just the black Confederates passage — in preparation for a reprinting in January.

    A suit to stop that reprinting appears to be baseless and only discredits those involved. In the meantime, here’s hoping the publisher reaches out to historians for additional assistance, now and in the future.

  4. Halloween? More like April Fools. I long for the day when we won’t have to waste time on this neo-Confederate nonsense and can get back to the serious study of African Americans in the Civil War.