How Your White Grandparents Were Taught to be Racist: Smith Burnham's Hate-Filled History Book

When my grandpa died, my grandma said "have at it" and snag any books I wanted from their basement laundry room, where they were stacked several feet high. Most weren't all that interesting, but I grabbed a few of his old textbooks that for some reason he had kept since youth, and told myself someday I'd take a look at them.

Twelve and a half years later? I finally opened his history book, published in 1926, Smith Burnham’s The Making of Our Country (1926).

I'd never heard of the guy before, so I decided to do a quick internet search, and apparently he was the head of the History department at Western State Teachers College, which is now part of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. They practically deify Burnham on their website, and have both a scholarship and a building named after this guy, glorifying his contributions and "pioneering tradition" in how he taught history.

"History"? Notsomuch. Racist diatribes? Xenophobic ramblings? The absolute invisibility of women in American history? That'd be more of the basics about Burnham, whose book has so much bigotry that it's no wonder that white children, 60 years after the Civil War, were being taught to look down upon anyone different than them. Some of it literally is stuff you've heard come out of the White House (particularly the 'good people on both sides' argument that makes me sick)...

So with that, I wanted to do more than blog about it, and decided to write the following letter to the President of WMU, Edward Montgomery, which I emailed to him today:

Hello Dr. Montgomery,

Recently I came upon my (deceased) grandfather's old history textbook, Smith Burnham's "The Making of Our Country" (1926) and, while I knew there would be rampant omissions and a huge slant to the writing, based on my own experience in the American public school system in the 1970's and 1980's, I still was floored by the overwhelming racism, xenophobia, and sexism in the book by the author. To look him up and see that there are buildings, scholarships, and online tributes to him on the WMU website was pretty terrifying. How is this possible when this man was not only encouraging bigotry but also teaching the next generation of instructors to follow his lead?

I wanted to contact someone on your Racial Justice Advisory Committee, but there is no link to who the actual members are, so I thought I would contact you directly. Below I've copied a number of quotes from the book so you can see just a smidge of this guy's history of hate. My hopes are that you're unaware of his racist legacy, and will act to do something about it. No one should have scholarships or buildings in their name as it's a kick in the face to the true history of our country. With your background and accomplishments, I hope something will be done at WMU to honor those who taught the truth and encouraged an honest dialogue, rather than those who called the KKK 'great', rendered women invisible, and promoted white supremacy throughout their textbooks.

  • “The real nature of the Indian has been described best by Francis Parkman. He says ‘Nature has stamped the Indian with a hard and stern physiognomy. Ambition, revenge, envy, jealousy, are his ruling passions...With him revenge is an overpowering instinct...A wild love of liberty, an utter intolerance of control, lie at the basis of his character, and fire his whole existence...With him the love of glory kindles into a burning passion...These generous traits are overcast by much that is dark, cold, and sinister, by sleepless distrust and rankling jealousy.” (p. 47)

  • “Democracy was in the air everywhere...By 1840 all religious qualifications were gone and in all but a few of the states every white man who was twenty-one years old could vote.” (p. 330)

  • Slavery “was not commonly filled with cruelty or actual distress.” (p. 344)

  • “But with all his zeal for freedom, Garrison was a one-sided and prejudiced man who denounced slavery and the slaveholders in the same scathing terms. He was unable to understand that while slavery was wrong many slaveholders were good men.” (p.348)

  • “The white people of the South have never forgotten the wonderful fidelity of the slaves during the Civil War...their wives and children were safe at home though surrounded by thousands of negroes...the faithful slaves continued to cultivate the plantations. Though most of the negroes desired freedom and well understood that Union success would give it to them, such was their respect and affection for their masters’ families that few slaves ran away.” (pp. 439-440)

  • “Many of the freedmen, as the former slaves were now called, refused to work and wandered aimlessly about the country or drifted into towns where they were often disorderly and sometimes criminal. In their alarm at this condition of affairs the southern people promptly passed laws to restrain the negro population.” (p. 454)

  • “After the last great Sioux war an effort was made to deal more justly with the red men. In 1878 the first Indians were sent to a famous normal and industrial school for negroes...and the following hear a great Training and Industrial School for Indians was set up...soon thousands of Indian children were learning the arts of civilized life...Education in civilized ways of living and the possession of land are steadily transforming the three hundred thousand Indians still left in our country from their former barbarous conditions into peaceful and prosperous citizens.” (p. 502)

  • “The Negroes in Our Midst...many of whom are still very imperfectly prepared for the duties of citizenship. The European pioneers who developed our country represented the most highly civilized races in the world...the negro slaves who were brought to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were uncivilized men had not yet learned many of the ways of civilized living and thinking which the members of the white race had been slowly learning for more than two thousand years.” (pp. 547-548)

  • “Many people in all parts of our country began to fear that some day we would have a Chinese problem as serious as our negro problem.” (p. 550).

This summer, I made a donation to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, which yes, is a real museum. Dedicated to "use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice", it has multiple exhibits (many of them virtual) that are designed to open up visitors' eyes to what really has happened in our country, and that it's not all apple pie and baseball as most red politicians would have you believe. What did I donate? Well, one day I decided to open up the extraordinarily old set of Elsie Dinsmore books that belonged to my great-grandmother, ones passed down to my mother, then myself, that I read voraciously as a young girl (I was quite precocious, so had these books all read before the age of 9 or 10, and didn't understand due to my age the subtext of much of it...just that it was a girl growing up in the South with a mean father and creepy Christian upbringing...yes, folks, I read literally anything that came my way as books were my true obssession). When I opened them and just read some passages to my husband, I just about died! Discovering this museum allowed me to pass along these books in a way that would get them out of circulation (important to me) while also not destroying them (they were one of the few things I have from a woman I only met once in my life), and instead putting them to use.

Looks like after reading my grandfather's school text that another book might be sent their way...


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