“I’m sick of them telling us lies, Auntie,” my 12-year-old niece Arianna said to me one day after school, fed up with what she was learning in her seventh grade history class.
The American history that is taught in many seventh-grade classrooms has been whitewashed. Black history’s biggest villains — colonizers like Christopher Columbus, Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, or enslavers like Thomas Jefferson — are some of America’s greatest heroes. Look no further than the monuments still standing in their honor and the buildings bearing their names to prove just that.
Our Founding Fathers are remembered as great men who shaped our nation. Former president Thomas Jefferson is said to have once been "in love" with the woman he enslaved Sally Hemings. To say Hemings was loved by Jefferson lessens the crime Jefferson committed: rape. As an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson, Hemings had no power — particularly not the power to stop sexual advances.
The erasure of these important details from American history has painted a more positive portrait of this country than its reality — and it’s still happening today. Former president Donald Trump spewed so many lies on Twitter that the platform added fact-checking labels onto his tweets before suspending him after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January.
The America I know is one rife with years of politicians lying to uphold white supremacy. It’s the country my niece already knows at age 12. And it’s why our country is in crisis today. Furthermore, there are currently 12 states debating the ban of critical race theory in American classrooms. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Sitt recently signed House Bill 1775, prohibiting public school teachers from discussing critical race theory, which is the core idea that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but a systemic construct embedded in legal systems and policies. While Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and West Virginia are considering legislation to prohibit the teaching of "divisive concepts," the signing of these bills and constant debate continues to exercise the power and privilege of white people.
As a fraction of legislators and educators fight to whitewash history, here are the white lies we’ve been told throughout history and the truth we rarely learn.
WHITE LIE: Slavery ended in January 1865 when Congress passed the 13th Amendment.
THE TRUTH: Many enslaved Black Americans were not made aware of their emancipation until June 19, 1865, also known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day. It marks the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, received news that all slaves were free. However, even after Juneteenth many Black people were re-enslaved when Union troops returned to the North.
WHITE LIE: The 13th amendment abolished slavery in totality.
THE TRUTH: According to the 13th amendment slavery was never abolished. As it states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Thus, making American prison labor legal under the U.S. Constitution. This is modern day slavery reimagined.
WHITE LIE: The South seceded from the Union to preserve states' rights which started the American Civil War.
THE TRUTH: The right to continue the institution of slavery was the states' right many southerners were looking to preserve that caused the withdrawal from the Union. Slavery was illegal in many Northern states, but wealthy and powerful southerners felt slavery was essential to their economy. They wanted to protect slaveholding, but the federal government wouldn’t overturn northern abolitionist laws.
WHITE LIE: Abraham Lincoln was against slavery.
TRUTH: Lincoln was more concerned about the preservation of the Union than he was about the abolishment of slavery. In 1862 Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley that contained these words “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
WHITE LIE: Christopher Columbus discovered North America.
THE TRUTH: Between his four different trips that started with one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that make up the present-day Bahamas and the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Although he explored the Central and South American coasts, Columbus never reached North America, which as we know was already inhabited by Native Americans. Columbus committed horrific atrocities and decimated the population of the communities inhabiting the islands where he did land.
WHITE LIE: Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth with open arms and then celebrated their arrival with the feast we now call Thanksgiving.
TRUTH: According to the history of the Wampanoag people, who originally inhabited the land, what we've been taught to believe was a peaceful feast was, in fact, a pact between the tribe and English settlers in an effort to avoid death and bloodshed. The Pilgrims were not the Wampanoag's first encounter with Europeans. In fact, there were years of tense interaction with Europeans who spread disease and ravaged tribes long before the Pilgrims arrived. The pact, however, did not last long. The Pilgrims and other colonizers would go on to violently overtake the Wampanoag people.
WHITE LIE: Jesus was a white man.
TRUTH: Jesus was not a European man who had blue eyes and pale skin. He was a Jewish man born out of Nazareth of the tribe of Judah. According to Joan Taylor, professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King's College London, Judaeans of that time were closest biologically to Iraqi Jews of today, who tend to have dark-brown to black hair, deep brown eyes, and olive-brown colored skin.
WHITE LIE: The Women's Suffrage Movement granted women the right to vote.
THE TRUTH: The Women's Suffrage Movement only granted white women the right to vote.
In 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This was originally designed to grant Black men the right to vote, but states used things like poll taxes, literacy tests, fear tactics, the grandfather clause, and voter fraud to keep Black men out of the polls. Not only was white America suppressing Black men from voting, they also banned white women from voting for nearly a century. Even as so many Black women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth fought alongside white women for voting rights, the Women’s Suffrage Movement didn’t benefit Black women at all. In the early 1800s, at the dawn of the movement, women started to push back on what society deemed was true womanhood — being bound to the home for domestic duties — and began imagining womanhood differently. Female activists and groups began to gather to discuss issues within women’s rights, arguing that women deserved the same rights as men because they were created equal. This led to the Women’s Suffrage Movement. But for Black women, our fight hadn’t yet reached the desire to be equal to white men. It was a fight for basic human rights, for the end of racial violence, for education, and so much more. Although we labored with white women, we weren't fully welcomed. We were often racially discriminated against and shut out. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke at the 1866 National Women's Rights Convention (a convention that most Black women were not permitted to attend) and told the crowd, “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” This was in regard to their version of female solidarity, which excluded Black women. On August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, all American women were granted the right to vote. But it wasn’t until 45 years later, in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act that Black men and women were able to exercise their right to vote.
WHITE LIE: "The Star Spangled Banner" is everyone's national anthem.
THE TRUTH: "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is the Black national anthem.
“The Star Spangled Banner” is widely recognized as America’s national anthem. It’s the patriotic tune that’s performed at most major sporting events and concerts. But “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which many were first introduced to during Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, is considered the negro national anthem. I went to elementary school at Lincoln Bassett in New Haven, CT in an “urban” part of town where I was first taught the negro national anthem. For years, it was the only anthem I knew. I remember proudly singing one of my favorite parts of the song that says “Let us march on ‘til victory is won,” with my chin up and chest out as a little girl. “Lift Every Voice And Sing” was penned in the early 1900s by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, with music composed by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. It was originally inspired by James looking to write a dedication poem for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but it was during a time of great oppression and segregation for African Americans. John saw the daily persecution of Black people and was instead moved to write a hymn that would uplift and inspire. A choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal, first performed the song in public in Jacksonville, Florida to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln's birthday. The negro national anthem continues to be sung in churches, school events, during rituals and at recitals.
WHITE LIE: The War on Drugs was a fight against illegal drug use.
THE TRUTH: The War on Drugs was a war on Black people.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse was public enemy number one in America. To fight against illegal drug use, he launched the War On Drugs, a painful policy that increased penalties, enforcement, and incarceration for drug offenders. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took office, the War On Drugs campaign grew exponentially. Reagan focused on the punishment of drug offenders over rehabilitation, which led to a steep increase of incarceration. Reagan was greatly criticized for his focus on criminal punishment. In 1984, Regan’s wife, Nancy Reagan, was the face of the campaign “Just Say No,” conceived to steer children away from the use of drugs. But in 1994, John D. Ehrlichman, who’d served as Assistant To the President for Domestic Affairs under the Nixon administration, revealed in an interview with Harpers Magazine that the War On Drugs campaign was really an attack on anti-war liberals and Black people. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said.
Some people believe this accusation was a fabrication told out of spite because Ehrlichman had spent time in prison as a result of the Watergate scandal. What can’t be denied is that the war on drugs disportionately affected Black people, and our communities were completely disrupted with fathers being sent to prison, mothers becoming single moms, children losing their parents, and parents losing their jobs and livelihoods. And sadly, Black people are still suffering from the long-lasting effects from the war on drugs today, with 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses being Black or Latino. Even now, while marijuana is legal in 37 states, over 40,000 people — a great many of them Black — remain incarcerated for marijuana charges.
WHITE LIE: Memorial Day was created by Americans to honor fallen soldiers.
THE TRUTH: Memorial Day was created by free enslaved Blacks to commemorate fallen Black soldiers.
The American Civil War ended as one of the deadliest military conflicts in U.S. history. It’s been noted that Memorial Day, first celebrated on May 30, 1868, was created to honor the fallen soldiers of the war we created. But in Charleston, South Carolina, there were thousands of Black free enslaved people who celebrated their fallen comrades and loved ones with a parade and decorative items well before May 30, 1868. In the late 1990s, historian David W. Blight found an old Harvard University archive about a Memorial Day commemoration organized by a group of Black people freed from enslavement less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865 on May 1, 1865. This was called Decoration Day. Decoration Day came from decorating the graves of the dead. Black Charlestonians, all former slaves, along white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” The procession was led by 3,000 Black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred Black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came Black men marching in succession. In the cemetery, a Black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and spirituals before a series of Black ministers read from the Bible.” Although Decoration Day was recorded in some local newspapers in South Carolina as well as New Orleans, white Charlestonians suppressed it in order to create their own version of the day, which we now call Memorial Day.
WHITE LIE: Rosa Parks didn't get out of her seat because she was tired and her feet hurt.
THE TRUTH: Rosa Parks refused to get up because she was tired of injustice.
Rosa Parks is known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1955. This led to her becoming one of the most prominent female figures of the civil rights movement. When people hear the story of Rosa Parks, they often imagine a feeble Black woman who was headed home from work, physically tired, and refusing to get up because she was exhausted. But after recently reading Rosa Parks’ autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story, I learned so much more about her. She was an activist that had been working with the NAACP for years as the secretary for the chapter’s president Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon. Parks was not the first woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat. 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was the first Black Montgomery bus passenger to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger, and the members of Parks’s NAACP chapter wanted to use Claudette’s story as a means to begin a boycott. However, Claudette became pregnant and the organizers felt the world wouldn’t sympathize with a Black girl having a baby out of wedlock, so they kept their eyes open for another face of the boycott. Parks, at the time, did not know it would be her. Parks had a previous negative encounter with the bus driver who demanded she move out of her seat, which was technically for Black folks, but because all the white-only seats were taken, the bus driver demanded she move out of her seat and give it to the white passenger. At this point, Parks had been subject to so much racial discrimation that she decided this was the day it was going to stop. So no, achy feet weren’t the reason Parks refused to move; it was the mental exhaustion of constant injustice against Black people. Parks’s refusal to move led to a year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
This article (originally published on June 19, 2020) has been updated.