What's Past is Prologue

Teaching History to Strengthen Democracy

In the heart of Wilmington, North Carolina, sits a neo-classical building with imposing columns and a whitewashed façade. Thalian Hall doubles these days as a performing arts center and city hall. But the building is the November 1898 site of the only successful coup d’etat in American history.

The beginning of the story coincides with the end of the Civil War in 1865. A defeated North Carolina, along with its Confederate brethren, needed to be brought back into the Union fold to begin the process of healing a broken nation. Slavery had been abolished, and millions of African Americans had become full citizens for the first time in the nation’s history. With that freedom came political power. African American men in the Tar Heel state became an influential electoral force and scored victories on all levels of government. White supremacist Democrats posed the main threat to this new political landscape, and they spent much of Reconstruction biding their time until the moment came to reclaim power from Republicans and newly enfranchised Black men.

North Carolina became in the immediate post-war era a vision of America’s full potential, a multi-racial, representative democracy, even if fragile, that lived up to the nation’s ideals. The presence of Union troops maintained the peace until 1877, when Republicans and southern Democrats struck a deal to resolve the highly disputed 1876 presidential election. Federal troops would be withdrawn from the former rebellious states in return for the Democrats’ recognizing Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ victory. The deal, however, would empower smoldering white supremacist elements to create a climate in which African Americans could again be persecuted and denied newly obtained rights.

In the years that followed, North Carolina’s Democratic party, working hand in glove with white supremacist groups such as the Red Shirts, would terrorize and intimidate Black residents regularly. The tactics, especially blatant during election season, were replicated all across the American South. Street-level violence and new codifications of racism led to the enactment of Jim Crow laws in nearly every former Confederate state. The consequences were staggering. Lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1895 became commonplace, and Black voter turnout throughout the South plummeted from more than 90% to single-digit percentages.

As a bulwark against this disturbing trend and the economic calamity that accompanied it, North Carolina’s poor, regardless of skin color, joined forces in the 1890s to create “Fusion”. The movement had two goals: to raise living standards of the poor and to keep white supremacist Democrats out of power. Fusion succeeded in the 1896 election, winning races throughout the state, including the governorship. The coalition enacted progressive laws that made North Carolina a beacon of hope in a region noted for its regression. Democrats quickly realized that they had only one card left to play if they were to regain power in the next election in 1898.

The strategy was a clear and simple white supremacy campaign. The Democrats aimed to scare white voters by portraying African Americans as an existential threat to be neutralized. They also set out to suppress the Black vote through more intimidation and violence, including murder. The strategy worked. Democrats reclaimed the governorship and won a majority in the state’s legislature. Still, one stronghold of progressive, biracial rule remained in North Carolina, and it was deeply rooted along the banks of the Cape Fear River.

Though the 1898 election was hotly contested elsewhere, it was an off-year for local elections in city of Wilmington, where a Fusion government presided over the state’s most liberal and progressive city. Emboldened by the march towards victory for white supremacy elsewhere, local whites became increasingly impatient with the status quo in Wilmington and vowed to take action before their next opportunity at the ballot box in two years’ time. The rising racial terror elsewhere in the South came to Wilmington as South Carolina Red Shirts under the leadership of U.S. Senator Ben Tillman made their way north to wreak havoc on the city’s Black community.

American society remains reluctant to grapple with the darker periods of its history.

Racial tension in Wilmington was already high following the publication in local newspapers of pre-election, anti-Black propaganda and advertisements for thugs to “patrol” African American communities. Alexander Manly, editor of The Daily Record, an African American newspaper, responded to the campaigns by writing columns denouncing the racist assault and calling on Black voters to turn out despite the mortal danger they might face. This act of defiance made Manly a target and provided the Red Shirts the pretense they needed to unleash violence on Wilmington.

On November 10, 1898, a white mob comprised of Red Shirts and local recruits descended on The Daily Record offices to seize Manly. Since he had already fled for his own safety, the mob attacked the paper’s building and set it afire. The mob then marched into the city’s African American neighborhood, shooting people indiscriminately, before going house to house and murdering residents. The death toll remains indeterminate since bodies were reportedly thrown into the Cape Fear River, but an estimated 60 to as many as 300 black Wilmingtonians are believed to have been murdered.

The killing spree over, the mob, led by former U.S. Congressman Alfred Waddell, went to the steps of Thalian Hall and issued what became known as the “White Declaration of Independence”. It stated that those of African origin would never again “dominate” white people in Wilmington. The declaration wasn’t rhetorical bluster. It threatened the biracial government, which was forced to resign. A roundup of elected officials, who were put on a train out of town, completed the coup. Waddell appointed himself mayor and led an unelected, municipal white supremacist government. No Black city official would be elected for the next 75 years.

History by Highlights

ber being taught in school and you’re likely to hear about George Washington’s chopping down a cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln’s freeing the slaves, and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. You’re unlikely to hear about Ocoee, Hamburg, Rosewood, Elaine and Wilmington, or any of the dozens of other examples of racial atrocities committed against African American communities. American society remains reluctant to grapple with the darker periods of its history.

There is no national U.S. standard for teaching history or civics. But the C3 Framework (college, career and civic life), which offers guidance on the four skills that social studies teachers should apply in class, is widely used. It speaks of developing questions and planning inquiries, applying disciplinary concepts and tools, evaluating sources and using evidence, and communicating conclusions and taking informed action. It offers, however, no guidance on the topics or events to be taught.

The strength of American democracy is inextricably linked with closing the gap between who we are and how we see ourselves.

In the absence of federal standards, education is a state, if not county or municipal, responsibility. U.S. history curricula have long been controversial, but the current political polarization and culture wars have further inflamed the public and elected officials. A bill introduced in New Hampshire makes it illegal to promote a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the U.S. The College Board, which creates the curricula and tests for high-school advanced placement classes, was forced in 2012 to revise coursework deemed to be insufficiently complimentary of American exceptionalism. Fourteen states have enacted legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory, which aims to give students multi-disciplinary perspectives on the social, racial and ethnic factors that have shaped the U.S. Critical race theory isn’t actually taught in any primary or secondary school, but the movement to ban it exemplifies the extent to which perspectives have hardened.

The balkanized nature of teaching American history denies the country a collective memory and a shared understanding of the past. Instead, some red states offer a sanitized version of history while blue states may provide a more critical interpretation. Has our failure to teach a common and accurate history contributed to the erosion of American democracy and the fraying of the social fabric? Insights into that question may come from across the Atlantic.

Complex Word, Simple Concept

Germany is often cited, justifiably, as an example for countries confronting their histories. “Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung” is, in the German linguistic tradition, a long word packed with meaning. Many interpretations exist, but the concept is essentially one of analyzing and coming to terms with the past. Germany has spent decades applying the concept while investigating Nazi crimes and exposing the horrors of the Holocaust. Out of that meticulous work, the German federal and state (Land) governments incorporated the teaching of the Nazi era into its primary and secondary schools, socialized it through film and television, erected monuments to the genocide and preserved others around the country. Berlin alone offers many reminders of the crimes. From the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, symbolically placed in the center of the capital beside the Brandenburg Gate, to the plaques marking the former homes of Jewish residents sent to concentration camps to never return, the city does not allow the past to be forgotten. Neither do German schools.

High-school students are required to take a course in 20th-century German history, which covers both world wars. Many schools supplement the class with concentration camp visits, an experience that leaves an indelible mark on many young people. Opportunities for further study also exist at the more than 3,600 schools that participate in the “Schule Ohne Rassismus” (Schools Without Racism) program, which is dedicated to furthering human values and equality. These efforts allow the German education system to offer a nationally shared history and sense of accountability. This common understanding of the past serves as a critical guardrail against a reawakening of right-wing extremism and a reminder of the importance of democratic governance.

Still, a growing part of German society wonders aloud when Germany will be a “normal” country, rather than one defined by the Holocaust. The answer, for many, is never. But others use the question cynically, as a political weapon or to note other countries’ hypocrisy in failing to recognize the shadows in their own histories. Poland recently passed a law prohibiting any accusation of its own culpability in the Holocaust. Violators face fines and/or imprisonment. And the U.S. itself only selectively takes responsibility for its own atrocities. The philosopher Susan Neiman once noted that “[t]here are more Holocaust museums in the U.S. than in Germany, Israel, and Poland combined – and almost none devoted to slavery.” Many countries have a long way to go.

If Americans are to continue to strive for a more perfect union, we need to come to terms with our past… All of it.

What can be done?

University of New Brunswick Professor Alan Sears, reflecting on the intersection of history and democracy in Canada, and based on years of research, offers a useful roadmap for teaching history to strengthen democratic resilience. He offers six key points:

  1. Explaining how historians formulate the stories they tell is equally, if not more, important than the stories themselves
  2. Recognizing the role of history in how we think about ourselves is critical to shaping a cohesive national identity
  3. Learning history in a variety of settings including at museums, in schools and at home reinforces a common understanding of the past
  4. Teaching students to present evidence about the past fosters a common conception of history
  5. Researching evidence allows students to dissect the complex layers of historical figures and events
  6. Hiring skilled teachers is essential to effective history instruction

Sears’ points comprise, in theory, a useful strategy for improving civic education and using it as a tool to strengthen a nation’s democratic fundamentals. In practice, however, particularly in the U.S. context, his concepts face a daunting partisan wall. The contentiousness of the American debate, like that of the C3 Framework, is centered on what history to teach rather than how to teach it. The distinction is not trivial. The strength of American democracy is inextricably linked with closing the gap between who we are and how we see ourselves.

History and Democracy

In a July 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 75% of American respondents declared the U.S. to be either the world’s greatest or one of the greatest countries, yet nearly 60% claimed to be dissatisfied with the way U.S. democracy is working. This contradiction reveals a fundamental problem directly connected to the teaching of American history. Americans are taught to regard their country as exceptional, a force for good, the land of the free and the home of the brave. That can lead to an unquestioning pride, which a deeper historical dive should temper. Racial tension, economic inequality and political polarization should spark questions of historical legacies. Racial tension arises out of forced African immigration. Economic inequality follows decades of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, red lining and other race-based measures that robbed communities of hard-earned wealth or limited their ability to acquire it. Political polarization emerges from decades of fearmongering and disinformation.

From a successful coup to an unsuccessful one, the U.S. is defined, for better or worse, by events that precede Wilmington and the choices made after the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. If Americans are to continue to strive for a more perfect union, we need to come to terms with our past. All of it.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue 3: Resilience
Dec 8, 2022

Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation