Deconstruction: Ron DeSantis Echoes Jefferson Davis In New Florida Policy

By Mark Jacob

Black people had it good in the antebellum South, according to Jefferson Davis. In a message to the Confederate Congress in 1861, the Southern leader said of the enslaved:  

“In moral and social conditions they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts (full dinner pails), but with careful religious instruction.”

The message hasn’t changed much in the intervening 162 years. Florida’s Board of Education, in line with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attacks on honest teaching about racism, decided last week that students should be taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

So, according to the state of Florida, slavery was a job training program.

You would think the issue was settled by the deadliest war in the nation’s history and that everyone realized slavery was an abomination in which rape, torture and family separation were routine. But no. Racists keep trying to rewrite history, describing the national stain as a beauty mark.

In 1900, the Washington Star reported that H.B. Frissel, who was head of the Hampton (Va.) Institute and received honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard, declared that “slavery was good in some things in that it taught the negro the English language, habits of industry and some religion.”

That same year, Winnie Davis wrote in the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch that “the southern people, as a whole, were not in favor of slavery, but being born into it, tried to make the most of it.” She argued that “American slavery was beneficial” compared to life in Africa, and that Black people owed their slaveholders “a debt of gratitude.”

Dr. R.R. Moton, a Black leader who led the Tuskegee Institute, gave support to this attitude in a 1922 speech in Georgia. According to a newspaper report, Moton said “negroes were fortunate in having been brought to this country.” (The accommodationist Moton was head of Tuskegee at the start of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which Black men were not told they had syphilis nor treated for it but instead were tracked for scientific research. The atrocity didn’t end until the 1970s.)

Another strange theory about slavery, espoused in 1937 by North Carolina judge Robert Winston, was that slaveholders were the victims. “He takes the view that, as a whole, slavery was good for the negroes but bad for the whites,” reported the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.

These examples (and there are more out there) show that the DeSantis administration’s whitewashing of the history of slavery is nothing new.

But it does blow up the Republican assertion that there’s no such thing as systemic racism in this country. When you can draw a straight line from Jefferson Davis to Ron DeSantis, there’s systemic racism.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.