The Real Problem with Advanced Placement U.S. History

I would like to apologize to my regular readers for: 1) the lack of posts lately; 2) the fact I am going to be going off topic again. But I have something important to say about a current news issue because I have an insider’s perspective on it that will be of interest.

In addition to my day job as a history professor from 2004 to 2015 (except 2005), the first week of each June, I served as a participant at the annual reading for the AP U.S. History exam. Until 2006, the reading was held in San Antonio, Texas, and since then in Louisville, Kentucky. I will not be going back in 2016 not only because it was simply getting too hard to read AP written responses by day and teach my online classes in the evening (online professors do not get summer break), but also because after the 2015 reading the Educational Testing Service (ETS) terminated me for violating its social media policy. (See the screen shots of the Twitter posts in question at the bottom of this piece). They were pretty innocuous, but obviously ETS did not feel that way. I only reveal them because after publishing this blog post, ETS and the College Board are likely to paint me as a disgruntled former employee. But if I am that, I have important things to reveal that only a longtime insider would know about AP U.S. History (APUSH for short) and I have backed up my analysis as much as possible from the College Board’s own publications.

Certainly, there is a lot to be concerned about in regard to APUSH. For the past year, since the release of its revised curriculum it has been under a withering attack from the political right, who saw the new curriculum as overly politically correct and insufficiently deferential to the Whiggish great man theory of American exceptionalism many conservatives adore. In other words, they believe APUSH should serve their notion of civil religion and not be overly critical of the American experience. Basically, in the past few days, the College Board, which administers APUSH (ETS handles the logistics of the distributing and scoring the exam) has caved into this pressure and announced its re-revision the curriculum to appease its conservative critics. Here are some links to relevant media articles to provide background: 1) Newsweek; 2) Slate; 3) Washington Post.

While the craven attitude displayed by the College Board is distressing, it is merely symptomatic of a larger problem with this organization and the entire Advanced Placement program. To wit, the fact that increasingly the ostensibly non-profit College Board runs APUSH and the other increasing number of AP subject areas as a profit-maximizing business. In other words, this current episode is merely the latest of questionable moves by the College Board which call into question its non-profit status and that of its long-time partner, ETS. The College Board some time ago seems to have largely ditched its mission with Advanced Placement of bridging the gap between secondary and higher education that helps justify its non-profit status, and now sees APUSH and its fellow AP programs as revenue sources to be milked for all they are worth. And the College Board and ETS have become extremely sensitive to any threat to their cash cow.

Since my dismissal, I have been perusing the College Board’s own publications to take stock and make sense of my eleven years participating in the APUSH reading. I have assembled my thoughts into a scholarly analysis of the problems afflicting APUSH due to the direction that College Board has taken it. I originally published this piece anonymously, but given the problems calling attention to it (the only readers ironically were from the College Board), I have decided to seize the moment and come out of shadows to make my case. I wrote the following piece under the pseudonym “Ida Tarbell” (given my muckraking I hope she would forgive me for appropriating her identity). It can be found under the blog:

I invite those interested to read this piece, which is entitled, “The Real Problem with AP U.S. History: Greed and Deceit.” It’s a bit over 5,000 words total. For convenience, it is split into two parts. Please feel free to share your feedback on it either on that blog or this one, or privately with me at I would especially encourage other current and former APUSH readers to chime in with your perspectives.



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Sesquicentennial of Juneteenth

Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

General Orders
No. 3

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the
Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality
of rights, and rights of property between former master and slaves and the connec-
tion heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and free laborer.
The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They
are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at Military Posts, and that they
will not be supported in idleness, there or elsewhere.

by Order of G. Granger, Major General Commanding
F.W. Emory, Major and A.A. Gen’l

Today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the name that has become associated with the liberation of slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War. Texas, as the western-most state of the Confederacy, was largely spared the presence of federal troops until the end of the war. Indeed, it became a common practice of slaveholders from outside Texas to “refugee” their slaves there in an ultimately vain effort to prevent their liberation.

Remembering this event would be of little importance outside of Texas except that in recent decades June 19 has become something an unofficial date to remember and celebrate nationwide the end of slavery in the United States. Why exactly, I am frankly not sure. But in essence, it is appropriate because Juneteenth represents an ad hoc commemoration of what was a largely ad hoc event. That is, while there are numerous milestones during the Civil War in slavery’s demise, for most slaves their liberation, that is the moment when they could finally effectively be free in practice, occurred incrementally throughout the war and its aftermath. Indeed, stories abound (likely apocryphal) of slaveholders on isolated plantations trying to keep the news of the end of slavery from their chattel.

But it is important to remember that even the liberation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865 that slavery was not completely dead yet in the United States, legally or practically. Legally, slavery had still not ended yet in Kentucky or Delaware which, thanks to their status as loyal slave states, were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (which interestingly was the authority cited by Union occupation authorities in Texas in June 1865 to order freedom for the state’s slaves). Kentucky slaveholders in particular, many Unionists, stubbornly held on to their human property in the belief that their loyalty during the war should somehow exempt them from any sort of emancipation. Indeed, slavery in those two states would not come to an end until final ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

So while Juneteenth is a convenient day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, it is important to recognize that nearly any day of the year would be equally appropriate. An important reason for this fact is that African Americans played an active role in their own liberation. While the so-called “self-emancipation” thesis can be rejected as overly simplistic, and even many of the scholars identified with it are not so simple-minded as to believe the slaves brought down slavery all by themselves, it is equally naive to believe slavery ended by the fiat of some governmental authority, whether it be Abraham Lincoln or Gen. Gordon Granger, who issued the now famous General Order No. 3, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. Emancipation was a process, in which many slaves were prime movers in their own liberation, whether it be by fleeing to Union lines, joining the federal army, giving information to Union troops, working more slowly in the fields, or in myriad other ways. In that process, the Union Army, northern politicians, humanitarians, etc. also played notable roles.

So celebrate emancipation on Juneteenth. But feel free to celebrate it any other day, and in any fashion you feel appropriate. And honor the spirit of emancipation in your daily lives, for that is the most meaningful way of all to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

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General Order No. 3

Happy 150th Juneteenth!

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Powerful Images of Ex-Slaves


Ex-slave Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas, c. 1936. Photographed by Dorothea Lange. Source:

Probably the most famous source on slavery from the slaves’ viewpoint is the WPA Slave Narratives, compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide relief during the Great Depression. Folklorists working for the WPA interviewed surviving ex-slaves across the southern United States, assembling a collection of over 2,000 narratives (now available online). Although the narratives are problematic because they occurred in Jim Crow South, which made some former slaves less than candid with their often white interviewers, and the advanced old age of the persons’ interviewed (most were in their 80s or 90s), which left their memories sometimes hazy, and the fact the narratives were rarely a verbatim account of ex-slaves’ comments (but usually instead a filtered summary produced by the folklorist), the WPA Slave Narratives still are a powerful window into slaves’ experiences with and their perception of the peculiar institution.

This past Thursday, the Washington Post published a photo essay of portraits of ex-slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. It is a moving collection of images of former bonds people in the twilight of their lives. Some of the government photographers that took these images became famous for their work. For example, the portrait above of Bob Lemmons was shot by Dorothea Lange, best known for another picture entitled “Migrant Mother.” This image and those featured in the Post article are now in the collections of the Library of Congress, and many of them can be viewed via their website.

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April 3, 1865: The Liberation of Richmond

Donald R. Shaffer:

Brooks Simpson at Crossroads reminds us that Richmond’s fall was also a significant moment in emancipation of slaves in the Civil War, especially as the main Union troops to enter the city first were African Americans of the U.S. Colored Troops.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

On April 3, 1865, United States soldiers, most of them African Americans. entered what had been the capital of the Confederacy, freeing what had been Richmond’s enslaved population. Although there were other days in the war when more people were declared free by proclamation, legislation, or constitutional amendment, this day 150 years ago freed a great many human beings, although the entrance of US forces into Charleston, South Carolina, again spearheaded by black soldiers, secured the freedom of another large number of human beings.

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Too Little, Too Late: The Confederacy Approves Black Recruitment


An artist in Harper’s Weekly (November 25, 1864) humorously imagining what would have happened had the Confederates actually sent black soldiers into the field.


Recently, the legend of black Confederate soldiers was revived by an article in The Root by John Stauffer. Stauffer’s piece had a few defenders, but many more detractors. Yet like a Hollywood super villain, Stauffer did prove that the notion that substantial numbers of African Americans served under arms for the Confederacy refuses to die in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. And there is plenty of evidence in that regard.

One of the most potent facts that rules against the existence of large numbers of black Confederate soldiers was an event that occurred 150 years ago today. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress in Richmond passed a law authorizing the recruitment of African Americans into the Confederate Army. The law’s text began.

That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.

If there were already substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers under arms, why was the Confederate Congress passing a bill to authorize their recruitment? The timing of the law also is interesting. It came only a few weeks before the fall of Richmond and the final collapse of the Confederacy. Clearly, given that the preservation of slavery had been at the heart of southern secession in 1860-61, it took the Confederacy being in extremis for its national legislature to pass a law so contrary to its reason for being.

For the service of black men in the Confederate Army would call into question the very basis of the Confederacy in the most fundamental way. As rebel leaders debated the idea of black recruitment in early 1865, Howell Cobb, a founding father of the Confederacy, and at the time a major general in its army, put the matter eloquently in a letter the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon. He wrote:

The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

The last sentence was the most telling: “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Of course, black Union soldiers had been proving exactly that point by their service since 1862. But Cobb was correct in the sense that for the Confederacy to recruit black men into its ranks was to call into question the entire Confederate project. That Howell Cobb by early 1865, was among the dwindling opponents of this idea speaks to the rapidly rising desperation of Confederate leaders in the last months of the war, and their readiness to resort to desperate measures to stave off final defeat.

Still, it is telling that even as they authorized black recruitment into the Confederate Army, the Congress in Richmond sought to make sure it would not threaten slavery. First, it limited recruitment to no more than 25 percent of the male slave population of military age in each state. Second, it did not promise freedom to black men that might enlist, leaving that decision to states and individual owners.

Given that the law made no provisions of freedom for slaves that enlisted, of course, it called into question why any slave would be motivated to serve unless forced to? And gave them every incentive to desert to Union forces at the first opportunity (see the image above). Hence, the March 13 law was an exercise in fantasy. The army administration was not able to draw up an order to implement the legislation until March 25, and on April 1, Lee’s lines in front of Petersburg finally collapsed and Confederate forces had to evacuate nearby Richmond the following day. On April 3, Union forces entered and took control of the city. The final surrender of Lee’s army quickly followed, and the Confederacy soon thereafter unraveled.

While a handful of black soldiers might have been recruited in the week or so before Richmond’s final fall, no evidence exists that any of them ever made it to the front to shore up Robert E. Lee’s crumbling defenses. The decision of the Confederate Congress to authorize their enlistment on March 13, 1865 was a classic case of “too little, too late.” But it does constitute potent evidence that no substantial numbers of African Americans ever served the Confederacy under arms during the Civil War.

Sources: 1); 2)

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Slavery Ends in Tennesee

Tennessee is an interesting case in the Civil War. While it seceded and joined the Confederacy in the second wave of secession that followed Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the assault on Fort Sumter, its mountainous eastern region, with relatively few slaves, remained staunchly Unionist, and Andrew Johnson, who came from that area, refused to resign his U.S. Senate seat and would go on to serve as the state’s Unionist military governor, be elected Vice President of the United States in November 1864, and become President after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Andrew Johnson served as the anchor of Lincoln’s efforts to reconstruct the state during the war itself. That such a reconstruction could occur was all the more amazing since Tennessee was a battleground throughout the Civil War. With a number of highly strategic rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, and Tennessee) touching its shores, natural invasion routes to the Deep South, the State of Tennessee became a natural location for Union and Confederate forces to clash over the course of the war. U.S. Grant would make his reputation in the state as a winning general taking Forts Henry and Donelson, before nearly losing it with a sanguinary victory at Shiloh in April 1862. Union forces would go on to capture Nashville and Memphis before year’s end, ironically leaving Unionist East Tennessee the only region of the state in the hands of the Confederacy. Union forces would challenge that control, only to be repulsed at Chickamauga in September 1863, retreating and being more-or-less besieged in Chattanooga, until U.S. Grant, fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg in Mississippi would return and drive the rebels from the state. The Confederates would belatedly return in Fall 1864, when John Bell Hood, in command of the rebel Army of Tennessee, after having been driven from Atlanta by William Tecumseh Sherman, tried to lure Sherman out of Georgia by invading Tennessee. Not to be sidetracked in his plans to march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean, Sherman detailed part of his enormous force under George Thomas, to stop Hood, which Thomas did in two battles at Franklin and Nashville, where in the later engagement the Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed. With his victory at Nashville, Thomas secured Tennessee for the Union for all time.

Tennessee also had been the site of April 1864’s Fort Pillow Massacre, in which Confederate cavalry raiding the state under Nathan Bedford Forrest had overwhelmed a small garrison of African Americans and white Unionists manning an obscure fortification on the Mississippi River, and then slaughtered most of the black defenders, many after they tried to surrender.

Slavery in Tennessee, with its stronghold in the Mississippi Valley was undermined by the Union occupation of that region and Middle Tennessee, even though Abraham Lincoln, in an effort to bolster the state’s Unionists, exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeing the hand-writing on the wall for slavery and with political ambitions beyond Tennessee, Andrew Johnson would call for “immediate” emancipation in Tennessee in late August 1863, although foreseeing a two-year legislative process to bring the peculiar institution to a final end in the state. Under pressure from Lincoln, who saw Tennessee as a test case for his administration’s ability to restore loyal state governments in South, and who by then believed slavery had to be eliminated as it was the root cause of secession, encouraged Johnson to speed up the process. So in January 1864, Johnson called a state constitutional convention to enact a reconstruction program for the state and require would-be voters to swear their support for an end to slavery in order to obtain suffrage. The convention was not held until a year later, after Johnson had been elected as Lincoln’s Vice President, and Tennessee voters approved the new state constitution in a vote on February 22, 1865, which included abolishing slavery. Tennessee became the third slave state and the first of the seceded states to end slavery on its own before the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. (Tennessee would ratify the 13th Amendment on April 5, 1865, the day the new state government took office.)

Source: Allen Carden, Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 280-81.

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