What My 1960s U.S. History Class Taught Me About Slavery — And Life


Katy Roberts was an editor at the New York Times for 30 years and at Bloomberg Opinion for 10 years.

The heavy cardboard boxes began arriving via UPS in late spring. They were hastily taped, and the contents — a jumble of beat-up books, faded pamphlets and dusty folders — looked long overdue for the recycling bin. The paper crumbled as I sorted through it.

But this was not disorganized clutter. It was a richly curated archive of teaching materials for U.S. history classes in the late 1960s. My 11th-grade teacher of the subject, Terry Friedlander, who is now 81, agreed to part with this half-century-old time capsule only because I volunteered to take it.

He and I had been in touch in recent years, and amid the wars over how the history of slavery and racial issues — that is, American history — should be taught in the public schools, we have traded articles about state laws banning books and censoring teachers. When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida enforced mandates to control what local schools could teach about these subjects, I wanted to jog my dim memory of how Mr. Friedlander covered the same topics in 1968.

In one box he sent, there was a pamphlet whose black-and-white cover I’d never forgotten. I can even see myself sitting in the un-air-conditioned Southern California classroom on the fall morning when he dropped it on my desk. The title was: “Negro Views of America: The Legacy of Oppression.”

Pamphlets like it would follow, as well as copies of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” We had a standard textbook, but Mr. Friedlander barely referred to it in class. Instead, we heard Alabama Gov. George Wallace call for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” during a film about civil rights demonstrations in the South. There was a field trip to the South Central Los Angeles headquarters of Operation Bootstrap, a Black self-help group. We could earn extra points for reading scholarly books such as Kenneth Stampp’s “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.”

Eisenhower High School in the San Bernardino suburb of Rialto was, in the late 1960s, the last place you would expect to have an immersion in the Black experience in America. Of the 35 or so students in Mr. Friedlander’s second-period class, only one was African American. The school was predominantly White, though it had a sizable Latino minority.

Rialto was marginally middle class back when people had well-paying jobs at the Kaiser steel mill upwind in Fontana or with Southern Pacific Railroad or at Norton Air Force Base. Even if the town had more Democrats than Republicans, the culture was conservative — a planet away from Berkeley and California’s other protest hotbeds. The school’s scary vice principal was a bishop in the Mormon Church across the street.

As a sheltered 16-year-old, I had no idea that Mr. Friedlander’s curriculum was part of a national movement. I knew only that the turmoil of the outside world — assassinations, war and demonstrations — had suddenly spilled through the school’s new chain-link fence, at least figuratively.

California was an epicenter of the Black Power movement. The incendiary yet sharply choreographed protests of the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966, were staples of the nightly news. (“Free Huey, Black is beautiful!” is an earworm I can’t turn off to this day.) That same year, the state’s voters elected Ronald Reagan governor, supporting his vow to crack down on “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates.”

California’s top education official, Max Rafferty, made Reagan seem like a milquetoast, with florid denunciations of just about everything related to the 20th century. Among other targets, Rafferty accused “unwashed, leather-jacketed slobs” of “stomping polio victims to death” and claimed that “the faster jets fly, the faster people go crazy.” Even the publisher of the conservative National Review, William Rusher, saw him as a product of Southern California’s “fever swamp of rightist kookery.”

When Rafferty first ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 1962, my mother wore herself out campaigning for him. She was enthralled by his pro-phonics zealotry and his attacks on the progressive-education “gospel according to St. John Dewey,” which she had been subjected to while getting her teaching credentials in the late 1940s. She laughed at his folksy put-downs of pedagogical fads. (“The fastest and simplest way to learn about Eskimos in Alaska is to read about them and discuss them, not to construct harpoons and eat whale blubber.”)

By 1968, Rafferty was the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and a culture warrior of national renown. Among other crusades, he called for stripping California educators of their teaching certificates if they allowed “Soul on Ice,” the best-selling memoir by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, in the classroom. Gov. Reagan chimed in: “If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.”

But for some reason, my mother — who was a hawk-eyed parent in addition to being a fervent right-winger who devoured the news — didn’t object when I used my tutoring money to buy “Soul on Ice” at Pickwick’s in the San Bernardino mall. Nor did she say anything when I stayed up too late reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Mr. Friedlander’s optional-reading list also included such classics as C. Vann Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” and John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom,” but I went for the shocking page-turners first. My father, an apolitical civil engineer, was probably just relieved I wasn’t hanging out in what remained of the town’s orange groves, drinking Ripple, smoking dope or doing whatever normal teenagers did in that part of Southern California in the late 1960s.

Only a few parents questioned Mr. Friedlander about what their children were reading. He told me their main concern was that the coursework allow for all points of view, which, remarkably, it did. No one apparently challenged what was in the school library, either. Some of the books he sent me — including the aptly titled “Black Rage” by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs — had checkout cards inside the covers.

Judging by what is in the boxes now sitting in my garage, it seems hard to believe when people my age say they didn’t learn about the history of slavery and racial issues in high school. The pamphlet series Mr. Friedlander used was published by the Harvard Social Studies Project and picked up in districts across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was only one of many such curriculums, which had names such as the American Problems Series and New Dimensions in American History.

They had stand-alone books or centerpiece sections on slavery and Black life in America up to the present day. The Scholastic Great Issue Series devoted two volumes to these subjects. The 119-page “Prejudice and Discrimination” book in the Inquiry Into Crucial American Problems series, which was available in the school library, suggested that teachers invite a local real estate agent to class to discuss racial bias in housing.

One of the more professional projects of the era was the nine-volume Scott Foresman Problems in American History. “The Negro in America” part of the series, published in 1964 (and reissued in 1971 as “The Black Man in America”), was praised by poet Langston Hughes, who told its author, Larry Cuban, that he was “delighted to be included therein.”

A report on these efforts published in 1970 referred to the “rush under way from coast to coast to make up for past inadequacies” in teaching about the histories and lives of racial minorities. In 1961 — the year before Max Rafferty was elected to the state’s top education post — California mandated that no textbook would be approved if it “does not correctly portray the role and contribution of the American Negro and members of other ethnic groups in the total development of the United States and of the state of California”; a half-dozen states, including Oklahoma and Nebraska, followed with similar laws.

Education departments in other states, including Kentucky and Nevada, adopted policies pushing such curriculums. Consultants in Nevada were directed to ask schools “pertinent questions,” such as: “Do you treat honestly the issues of segregation and civil rights or do you timidly and antiseptically clean up our history and current events, thus guaranteeing only partly educated graduates unable to cope with the issues and tensions of the times?”

There was pushback. A conservative Texas couple, the formidable Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, would make an impact on their state’s choice of textbooks, though their main target seemed to be the teaching of evolution. The far-right John Birch Society lobbied school districts across the country to ban books it considered subversive, with desegregation and civil rights lumped in with communism and sex education.

But Republican politicians mostly kept their distance from the Birchers and from messing with decisions made by local schools. And it was a period when conservatives’ leading public intellectual, William F. Buckley Jr., not only engaged with James Baldwin and civil rights leaders such as John Lewis, but also erratic figures such as Eldridge Cleaver (who would become a Reagan Republican in the 1980s). My mother and I never missed Buckley’s “Firing Line.”

One memory I have from Mr. Friedlander’s class was the time he interrupted our usual gabfest to tell us the advice a University of California at Los Angeles professor had given him: Teach students how to think rather than try to stuff their brains with facts. “We can fill in the content later,” the professor assured him. I wish I’d raised my hand and asked whether we were all going to UCLA. Only a small percentage of students from Rialto had the opportunity to go away to four-year colleges back then, let alone attend that magnificent public university 75 miles to the west.

I never took a U.S. history class again. In college, thanks to a dorm-mate’s rich father and my earlier experience in Teen Age Republicans, I briefly became a junior member of the California Republican State Central Committee. I was among only about 3 percent of students at my school to vote to reelect President Richard Nixon in 1972. So much for Mr. Friedlander’s brainwashing skills (and, given how the Nixon years played out, so much for my political judgment).

Unintentionally, my self-education in the decades after was often through the lens of Mr. Friedlander’s class. Literally, since I still carried around the small library I’d gotten at Pickwick’s. But over the years, there were always newer works that took precedence, peeling the onion of American history with more insight and points of view and facts that challenged and amplified what came before.

Today we find ourselves in a new kind of time warp, with politicians joining activists in efforts to turn back the clock. But even if we roll our eyes at the vacuity of some current classroom content, or are shocked sometimes, it is fruitless to block what public schools teach and what libraries have on their shelves when it all reflects the changes and conditions in the society outside.

If parents want to protect young minds 24 hours a day, shielding them from “divisive concepts” or from “feeling guilty” about dark chapters in the nation’s past, they are showing a lack of trust in their children’s ability to figure out how to live in a complicated world. And as my mother instinctively understood, when I was on my way to school and she was heading off with a carload of “Nixon’s the One” campaign fliers, I deserved a chance to educate myself about our messy democracy.