College professor uncovers controversial passage in textbook

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October 21, 2010

11:39 PM

College of William and Mary professor Carol Sheriff has gained national attention for discovering a disputed passage in her daughter’s fourth grade history textbook.

“Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks,” reads the passage from Our Virginia: Past and Present, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”

Such claims are generally rejected by American historians, but espoused by pro-Confederate groups attempting to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War.

Most historians agree that African Americans did not fight in any organized way for the Confederacy, and certainly their numbers were not in the thousands.

“While it is true that there were isolated instances of African Americans taking up arms for the Confederacy,” Sheriff said, “they were usually body servants who had accompanied their masters to the front and who, in the heat of battle, picked up arms to protect their masters and themselves.”

According to Sheriff, the Confederates did not even allow black soldiers in their ranks until 1865 — a full two years after Jackson’s death.

“It is simply not true that Stonewall Jackson commanded two black battalions,” Sheriff said.

The textbook’s author, Joy Mastoff, says she based her information about black Confederate soldiers on Internet research. Mastoff, although a successfully published author, is not a trained historian.

“It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff told the Washington Post. “It concerns me, not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”

Despite the backlash, Mastoff defends her writing.

“As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she told the Post. “I am a fairly respected writer.”

The Acting Superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County Schools has invited Sheriff to work with the school board to turn the incident into a “teachable moment.”

“I hope they will learn, among other things, to approach what they read with a critical eye and, crucially, to be very discerning about how they do research on the Internet,” Sheriff said.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article about the textbook discovery.

Since then, Sheriff has been featured on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” quoted on NPR and written about in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot.

Sheriff specializes in nineteenth century history, with an emphasis on the period between 1815 and 1865.
She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1993, and has authored or co-authored several books, including the Dixon Ryan Fox Prize-winning The Artificial River, The Erie Canal and the Paradoxes of Progress, 1817-1862.

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