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Great Kanawha County Textbook War

By Trey Kay

Textbook protestor in Kanawha County in 1974. Photograph courtesy
of the Charleston newspapers, photographer unknown.

In September 1974, a storm was brewing in the mountains and hollows of West Virginia. I was 12 years old and about to enter seventh grade. When the bus rolled up to Charleston’s John Adams Junior High that first day, I saw a group of women holding homemade signs. One read, “I have a Bible. I don’t need those dirty textbooks!” In the next few weeks, our community was turned upside down. Neighbors threatened and harassed each other. The Ku Klux Klan marched on the state capitol steps and burned crosses in the community. A man was shot, and schools were bombed. A war began that in the view of some still rages today.

The affluent neighborhood in Charleston where I grew up is known as “The Hill.” Our neighbors were doctors, lawyers, and business people. Outside the city, however, twisting, bumpy roads wind through hills and hollows, past small towns and mining camps. There are general stores and filling stations, men in grease-covered overalls, and dozens of little churches filled to capacity on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.

Much separated urban and rural Kanawha County – then as now. One institution did tie the county together: the board of education, which oversaw Kanawha County’s 125 schools. On April 11, 1974, the Kanawha County Board of Education met to consider some new textbooks that were being proposed for adoption.

“I remember it, going into it, as a typical meeting,” says Becky Burns, one of the five-member 1974 textbook selection committee. “I had attended these before, but just as a teacher. Thelma Conley presented the rationale for the selection.”

As Thelma Conley explained to the school board, “Not only did the committee look for multi-ethnic content, but also multicultural.”

"We were operating under state guidelines," Becky Burns continues. "One of the guidelines, which was a new one, was that the textbooks should be multicultural in their content and in their authorship."

"Multiculturalism" was a relatively new concept in curriculum planning at that time. Across the country, schools were beginning to use textbooks that included more varied viewpoints and more writers of color.

When the book presentation concluded, school board member Alice Moore questioned a term used in the report: "dialectology." It was intended to encourage students to feel comfortable in expressing themselves by using their natural dialect.

"I just don't think I agree with that approach at all," Alice Moore said at the time. "In fact, I'm sure I don't."

Alice Moore was the lone female member of the Kanawha County Board of Education. She was a minister's wife with four children in the schools and the only board member without a college education. To Mrs. Moore, it didn't seem right to teach incorrect English in school.

"There's a correct way to speak," she said. "Now, there may be some slight variations, but 'dem' is never correct. 'Dat' is never correct for 'that.' Now if we're talking about this in dialectology, I won't approve these books."

Moore's objection caused a sensation.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.