Column: Ron DeSantis and the whitewashing of slavery’s horrors

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: Why is this man laughing?
(John Raoux / Associated Press)
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With the news in recent days so irremediably grim — what with the mainstreaming of antisemitic drivel by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the record heat wave traceable to global warming — I found myself looking desperately for a comic interlude to lift my mood.

That brought me inevitably to the Ron DeSantis clown show. He offers dark comedy, to be sure, but comedy nonetheless. Over the last week, it has featured a ham-fisted attempt to whitewash the horrors of slavery in America.

That slavery thing is actually divided into two scenes. We’ll take them in order.

Some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. This is factual and well documented.

— William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, members of Florida African American History Task Force


Scene One is last Wednesday’s approval by the Florida Board of Education of new standards for the teaching of African American history in the state’s K-12 schools. What caught the attention of educators and other close readers was a provision that the curriculum cover “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Critics have concluded, absolutely correctly, that this provision serves to elide the manifold horrors of slavery by searching out its good side.

Its defenders say that’s just one item in a 216-page curriculum, so what’s the problem? Why, writes Charles C. W. Cooke of the right-wing National Review, the whole package “contains the word ‘slave’ 96 times, ‘slaves’ 23 times, and ‘slavery’ 45 times! The “skills” part, he writes, is only a “tiny (and correct)” piece of the total.

Leaving aside the stupidity of parsing a text by counting words, this evades the question of what the point is of placing this item into the curriculum at all. What’s the goal of teaching students that slaves may have learned skills that might have sustained them if they were lucky enough to be freed or escape?

Is it to show that subjecting human beings to rape, torture, family disruption, starvation unto death, and other brutality is only one aspect of a practice that also has, hey, its good points? That’s a bit like saying that Jewish men, women and children may have been marched into the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but at least they got a train trip to the countryside out of it.


In its totality, the Florida curriculum aims to minimize the true character of American slavery.

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Josh Marshall, who holds a doctorate in American history from Brown University but is best known as the founder and boss of the invaluable progressive website Talkingpointsmemo, put his finger succinctly on the curriculum’s thrust in a Twitter thread this weekend. In its totality, he wrote, the text “certainly seems geared to deemphasize the backbreaking agricultural labor which was the lot of the vast majority of slaves during the 200 plus years of slavery.”

The curriculum spends an inordinate amount of time on “other places where slavery was arguably worse” than the American South, such as Africa and the Caribbean,” Marshall writes. “The upshot ... is definitely to soften the image of North American slavery.”

The curriculum makes an effort to underscore the achievements of Black Americans in the modern era and civil rights leaders — though most of those it mentions in the latter context are white (presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, for example). Two Black intellectuals inexplicably included in that group are political scientist Shelby Steele and economist Thomas Sowell, who are widely regarded by their colleagues as hacks.

The real comic element of this whole affair comes in Scene Two: the formal defense. This was provided by two members of the all-Black task force appointed by the state Department of Education to craft the curriculum. Neither is a historian. They’re William Allen and Frances Presley Rice.

Allen is an emeritus professor of political science at Michigan State University. Rice is a former Army lieutenant colonel and founder and chair of the National Black Republican Assn. Some years ago, Rice wrote a screed about the supposedly secret racist past of the Democratic Party, which she said had “hijacked the civil rights record of the Republican Party and taken blacks down the path of Socialism.”


Sure, Democrats were known for part of their history as pro-slavery, and Republicans freed the slaves, thanks to Abraham Lincoln. But no one with functioning critical faculties thinks of either party as holding to those positions today — just the opposite.

In a statement tweeted out Thursday by Alex Lanfranconi, a publicity flack for the state Department of Education, Allen and Rice asserted that the intent of the “skills” provision is “to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted.” They wrote: “This is factual and well documented.”

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Is that so? Let’s take a look. Allen and Rice provided 16 examples, listed by name and trade, to prove their point.

As it happens, nine of the 16 people mentioned never were slaves. Seven are identified by the wrong trade. Thirteen, possibly fourteen, did not learn their skills while enslaved. One, Betty Washington Lewis, whom Allen and Rice identified as a “shoemaker,” was white: She was George Washington’s younger sister, a slave owner.

A few other examples:

Allen and Rice mention Booker T. Washington in the category “teachers.” Washington was 9 years old and illiterate when slavery was banned by the 13th Amendment in 1865. All the skills that brought him to the point of becoming the revered leader of the Tuskegee Institute he acquired as a free man.

Among the four individuals named as having learned blacksmithing as slaves, Ned Cobb was never enslaved, having been born in 1885, and was a tenant farmer; Henry Blair was an inventor born a free man in Maryland; Lewis Latimer was an inventor born free, to escaped slaves, in Massachusetts; and John Henry was a figure of folklore who may never have existed at all.


Of “fishing and shipping industry workers” named by Allen and Rice, John Chavis was born a free Black man in North Carolina who is known as an educator and minister; numerous biographies carry no mention that he was ever employed in fishing or shipping.

William Whipper was born in Pennsylvania to a Black slave and her white owner; he inherited his white father’s lumber business and became a noted entrepreneur who helped finance the Underground Railroad. He did at some point own a Lake Erie steamship, which may have confused those indolent researchers Allen and Rice.

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Then there’s Crispus Attucks, who is best known as a victim in the Boston Massacre of 1770 and is often portrayed as the first martyr of the American Revolution. He was born into slavery in Massachusetts but learned his trade as a sailor on a whaling ship after escaping, not as a slave.

One great mystery about all this is where Allen and Rice acquired their incredible tsunami of misinformation. The Education Department named two sourcebooks for the Tampa Bay Times. They’re “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” by William C. Pell (1895) and “The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895,” published by Oxford University Press in 2006. But my online search through both found nothing that could be the source of the versions offered by Allen and Rice — in either book.

Put this all together, and it becomes clear that no one needs an education about African American history as desperately as the members of the Florida Education Department’s task force on African American history.

That can hardly come as a surprise, since DeSantis made a special effort to stock it with five reliable Republican stooges (and one conservative Democrat) who happen to be Black but have no expertise as historians.


They include a state representative who is a lawyer, a former chief of staff in the state Department of Transportation, a newly appointed member of the board DeSantis created, as part of his war with Walt Disney Co., to replace the Disney-controlled board that oversaw the site of Disney World, and the head of the state lottery. (Allen and Rice were also among the appointees.)

Make no mistake: This is all part of DeSantis’ effort to make himself look like a culture warrior par excellence, with no goal other than to obtain the GOP’s presidential nomination.

That’s what’s behind his war with Disney over its temerity to criticize his “Don’t Say Gay” law, his administration’s browbeating of the College Board to water down its Advanced Placement course on Black history, and his deliberate destruction of the faculty and administration of New College of Florida, which was a leading public liberal arts college until DeSantis got his mitts on it and replaced its board with a gang of ignorant right-wing toadies.

Given that record, why would anyone be surprised that DeSantis wants to whitewash slavery? It is comic, but don’t let anyone say that it isn’t also disgusting.