It's been said that history is often written by the victors, but in the case of the Civil War, the saying might not hold true. Although the Union army of the North won the war, the Southern Confederacy may have won the narrative that followed.
Case in point: Soon after the failure of Reconstruction, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) went to work rewriting the textbooks — and therefore history — across the school systems in the South by blacklisting textbooks that were "unjust to the institutions of the South" and publishing new ones that adhered to their distorted version of Civil War history. In other words, The Lost Cause narrative.
Writings by Southern historians like Edward Pollard and Confederate General Jubal Early reframed the Confederacy as an "heroic defense of the Southern way of life against the overwhelming forces in the North," according to Vox. Part of the UDC's strategy was to preserve and teach their distorted perception of the war — including the much-romanticized lives of slaves and the relationships they had with their masters.
"In addition to putting up monuments to the Confederacy all over the South, the UDC also wrote and published textbooks to indoctrinate Southern children in their Lost Cause mythology," explains Brad Perry, founder of The Public Franklin, an activist group that promotes anti-racism through education, advocacy and action in Franklin, Tennessee. Perry is also an educator who has taught and developed curriculum on African American history to high school students. "These textbooks almost completely omitted the achievements and contributions of African Americans, and they were used by the overwhelming majority of Southern public schools well into the 1970s."
So it's no surprise that many adults educated after 1877 in U.S. public schools never learned about these five accomplishments achieved by — and injustices faced by — African Americans.
1. Redlining and Racist Housing Practices
For decades, redlining was a practice many banks in the U.S. used to deny mortgages to mostly people of color in urban areas. It stemmed from the Great Depression when the government was evaluating the riskiness of mortgages but now gives us a glimpse into how discriminatory American housing policies were.
Redlining was common in the 1930s in big cities like Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago. The housing and real estate industries helped redlining flourish by increasing prices of properties in predominantly white neighborhoods for African American buyers, ensuring the neighborhoods remained white.
But it was the infamous redlining maps from lenders like Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) that allow us to see the practice in black and white. The HOLC (and other lenders) graded neighborhoods into categories based on race. Those with minorities were marked red and were considered high-risk for lenders.
These practices led to the inequality of wealth between Black and white people that continues to this day. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition's "HOLC 'Redlining' Maps: The Persistent Structure Of Segregation And Economic Inequality" report from 2018, cities the HOLC graded high-risk or "hazardous" still have greater economic inequality.
2. Elizabeth 'Mum Bett' Freeman Sues for Freedom
Elizabeth Freeman, nicknamed "Mum Bett," was born into slavery in 1742, and was given to the Ashley family of Sheffield, Massachusetts, in her early teens. While enslaved, she married and eventually had a daughter named Betsy.
One day in 1780, Mrs. Ashley accused Betsy of being a thief and chased her with a hot shovel. Freeman jumped in between the two just as Ashley was swinging and blocked the shovel with her arm. Freeman received a deep wound on her arm and displayed the scar her entire life as proof of her poor treatment.
After the Revolutionary War, Freeman was walking through town and heard the Massachusetts State Constitution being read aloud. After hearing "all men are born free and equal," she thought about the legal and spiritual meaning of these words. She met with Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney and abolitionist she knew and asked to sue for her freedom.
He took her case, but because women at the time had very few legal rights, Sedgwick added a male slave known simply as "Brom" to the lawsuit and sued Col. John Ashley.
In the case Brom and Bett v. Ashley, Sedgwick argued that based on the Constitution, she and Brom shouldn't be considered property and therefore should be free. The jury in the Court of Common Pleas decided in their favor.
Col. Ashley appealed to the Supreme Court but later dropped the appeal, making Mum Bett the first female slave to sue and win her freedom.
3. Tulsa Was Home to 'Black Wall Street'
In the 1890s, after the Emancipation Proclamation, Oklahoma became a haven for freed slaves looking to start new lives. As African Americans started businesses and built a flourishing community, the affluent area in Tulsa known as the Greenwood District was coined "Negro Wall Street" by Booker T. Washington.
Here — unlike many other places in the U.S. — Black residents could get loans, a strategy Black businessmen created by pooling their resources. As the benefits of land and business ownership multiplied, doctors opened practices, teachers opened schools and the prosperity of Greenwood was undeniable. The district boasted grocery stores, movie theaters, hair salons, restaurants, entertainment, churches, social organizations and more.
A journalist started a newspaper called the Tulsa Star, which helped the district continue to thrive. The Tulsa Star regularly printed articles about legal rights and rulings that spurred the community members to advocate for themselves. As Greenwood became more socially active and upwardly mobile, it drew the attention of white residents in Tulsa — particularly poor whites — who resented the Blacks' rise in position, property and power.
But all was not peaceful. In 1921, as racial tensions grew, a newspaper article in the Tulsa Tribune accused a young African American man of raping a white teenage girl and violence ensued. Between May 31 and June 1, more than 300 Black residents were killed by whites, many of the more than 80 businesses were burned or looted, and several citizens were left without homes in what's been dubbed the Tulsa Race Massacre.
4. Mary Kenner Changes Women's Lives Forever
You probably learned about George Washington Carver in high school. But you've probably never heard of Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner. She's the African American woman we can thank for inventing the sanitary belt in 1957 and revolutionizing women's lives across the entire globe.
Before her invention, women were still using cloth pads and rags during their periods, which made it difficult to work outside of the home for fear of accidents. Kenner's simple idea was to create an adjustable belt with a moisture-proof pocket for napkins. Genius.
When Kenner invented her modern-day maxi-pad, it was illegal for African American women to apply for patents. But that didn't deter her. She continued to perfect her sanitary belt — and decades later, she was able to patent it and several other inventions, as well. And although Kenner never gained wealth or recognition for her many inventions, she is still the only African American woman in history to file five patents that solved real problems for women.
5. The Ocoee Election Day Massacre
On Feb. 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving African American men the right to vote. By Election Day 1920, it had been legal for 50 years, but many Black citizens still didn't exercise their right to vote out of fear of retribution. Those fears came true in Ocoee, Florida, on Nov. 2, 1920, which ultimately ended as the most violent day in American election history.
On Nov. 1, Ku Klux Klan members marched in robes, carrying crosses and threatening violence if any Black men attempted to vote in Ocoee. But African American Mose Norman, who was a prominent landowner, chose to exercise his democratic right anyway. When Norman approached the polls, a crowd was at the entrance to stop Blacks from casting votes.
Norman left and returned with a group of Black citizens demanding to vote, but they again were turned away. An altercation ensued.
Norman retreated to the home of his friend, civil rights activist Julius "July" Perry, leaving the white mob enraged. The mob of mostly KKK members went looking for Norman — and any other Black trying to assert their right to vote. The mob headed to Perry's home, but Norman was gone. They questioned Perry and a gunfight ensued. Perry was "arrested" and lynched Nov. 3, 1920.
But the white mob didn't stop there. They continued from house to house firing guns and torching homes, turning the day into a "gruesome racial purging" that ended with the murder of between 35 and 50 Black Ocoee residents. Every house in Ocoee's Methodist Quarter, plus the school and the Ocoee African Methodist Episcopal Church were set on fire. Soon after, most African Americans that survived moved away, including Norman, who left Florida for New York City where he lived until his death in 1949.