Bud Kennedy

Harriet Tubman’s heroics were long untaught in whitewashed Texas

Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight at a 2004 State Board of Education meeting.
Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight at a 2004 State Board of Education meeting. Austin American-Statesman

If you didn’t study Harriet Tubman in school, there’s a reason.

Texas’ notoriously pale school lessons never taught much about the Maryland abolitionist and heroic Union Army spy-nurse.

We have an entire state holiday devoted to Civil War heroes, but only for the losing side.

You never hear about Tubman or Texas’ first Medal of Honor recipient, Milton Holland. We celebrate only Confederates.

Tubman (c. 1822-1913) is now taught in third grade. Lately, a 2010 State Board of Education rewrite has included her for “heroic deeds” along with the likes of Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and 9-11 Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer.

She is the only African-American studied in the “heroes” section, which originally included mythical figures Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. (A different section on “good citizens” includes Louisiana desegregation figure Ruby Bridges.)

More than two-thirds of Texas’ students are children of color, yet their lessons are mostly about whites.

That is not unintentional.

Texas’ mostly white State Board of Education chose topics “based on the individuals’ contributions,” former Chairwoman Gail Lowe wrote in 2010, “not on the politics of racial or cultural division.”

The excuse was given that history books would be too thick if we added too many minorities.

Former State Board of Education member Mavis Knight

To Lowe, the “all men are created equal” line in the Declaration of Independence apparently included Daniel Boone, Republican former U.S. Sen. John Tower and President Ronald Reagan.

Back then, Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight also represented east Fort Worth on the board.

“It was difficult to add minority figures,” she said Tuesday.

“We had no real standards other than people’s personal opinions. The excuse was given that history books would be too thick if we added too many minorities. But that didn’t seem to matter when there were people the majority wanted to add.”

Few will be longer remembered than Harriet Tubman … Her native cunning enabled her to lead large parties of slaves to freedom.

Syndicated writer Frederic J. Haskin in “The Modern Woman,” April 1913

The debate drew national scorn for the SBOE, usually dominated by conservative education activists.

(That hasn’t changed. A ninth-grade textbook calls slaves “workers.” And a May 24 runoff for an East Texas district includes a Mineola Republican who likes to quote the John Birch Society.)

Knight said it was particularly tough to add civil-rights leaders and also American Indian historical figures: “The explanation was always, ‘We don’t want to paint a negative picture.’ 

Unlike some Union heroes, Tubman was depicted positively even in Texas.

For more than a year, the group Women on 20s pushed to get the U.S. Treasury to replace the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with the face of a female American. This is one of the videos they created in their effort to replace him on the

The Star-Telegram’s syndicated report of her 1913 death described her as a “faithful” and “valuable” Union nurse who used “native cunning” to lead slaves to freedom.

But as late as 1969, neither she nor fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass was even mentioned in state textbooks.

Back then, state Rep. Curtis Graves of Houston said history books “didn’t list the good or the bad. … [They] would lead any child to believe the Negro had no role.”

In Texas, we don’t know much history. We don’t even know how much we don’t know.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.