15 Dark Episodes of American History You Never Learned In School

America’s history textbooks often skip over the darker, more uncomfortable truths of the past, leaving students unaware of the atrocities and injustices that have shaped the nation. Here, we dive into a social media thread where users shed light on some of the overlooked aspects of American history.

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#1 The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

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“The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was pretty messed up. African American men were told they would get free treatment, but instead were left untreated, so scientists could study the progression of untreated Syphilis.”

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was indeed a deeply disturbing and unethical episode in medical history. It began in 1932, when the U.S. Public Health Service initiated a study in Tuskegee, Alabama, involving African American men who had contracted syphilis. These men were promised free medical care, meals, and burial insurance in exchange for their participation.

However, what these men were not told was that the study was not designed to treat them, but rather to observe the natural progression of syphilis if left untreated. Even when penicillin emerged as a widely accepted and effective treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, the participants were denied access to it. They were misled and deliberately kept ignorant about their condition and the available treatment options. This experiment continued for a shocking 40 years, until it was exposed by a whistleblower in 1972. By that time, numerous participants had died, and many had unknowingly transmitted the disease to their partners and children.

#2 Native American Civil Rights

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“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”

Standing Bear v. Crook was a landmark legal case in United States history that occurred in 1879. It centered around the Ponca Native American tribe’s forced removal from their ancestral lands in Nebraska to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Standing Bear, a Ponca chief, along with several other Ponca leaders and families, resisted the relocation, arguing that they had not agreed to leave their homeland.

During the trial, Standing Bear delivered a powerful speech, expressing his humanity and his right to be treated as such. The quote above encapsulates his argument, emphasizing the common humanity shared by all people regardless of race. In a significant decision, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled in favor of Standing Bear, recognizing Native Americans as “persons” under the law and declaring their right to habeas corpus. This decision was a significant milestone in Native American civil rights, acknowledging their inherent humanity and paving the way for future legal battles to secure their rights and recognition as citizens of the United States.

#3 Lawlessness in the Gold Rush Era

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“The beginnings of the city of San Francisco are pretty nasty. During the gold rush, the entire city was basically lawless and the only women in town were prostitutes. There were pirates, murders, lynchings, etc.. etc.. At one point the US army nearly invaded the city. The entire city was burned down twice over by pirates.”

During the Gold Rush era in San Francisco, the city experienced a period of rampant lawlessness and social upheaval. As fortune seekers flooded into the area in search of gold, San Francisco rapidly transformed from a small settlement into a bustling metropolis. However, the sudden influx of people overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure and law enforcement capabilities, creating an environment where criminal activity thrived unchecked. Herbert Asbury’s book, “The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld,” offers a compelling exploration of this lawless era, shedding light on the darker aspects of the city’s early development.

#4 The Tulsa Race Massacre

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“The Tulsa race riots are pretty commonly ignored in civil rights teachings and Oklahoma history. In a single day, a white mob burned the most affluent black community in America to the ground. They were dropping firebombs from airplanes. The 1921 event was commemorated for the first time in 2010.”

The Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the deadliest instances of racial violence in American history, occurred in 1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite the significant loss of life and destruction of property, the event has often been overlooked or downplayed in history books and educational curricula. The erasure of this tragic event from mainstream historical narratives reflects broader patterns of systemic racism and the marginalization of Black history in America’s collective memory. Efforts to bring awareness to the Tulsa Race Massacre and its lasting impact continue to challenge historical amnesia and promote racial justice and reconciliation.

#5 Native American Boarding Schools

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“Native American disenfranchisement. Children were taken from their parents and put in boarding schools. Their hair was cut and they were “Americanized” to destroy culture.”

The history of Native American boarding schools in the United States is a painful and dark chapter in the nation’s past. Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing well into the 20th century, the U.S. government, in collaboration with various Christian denominations, established and operated boarding schools with the explicit goal of assimilating Native American children into mainstream American culture.

Children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and sent to these boarding schools, often far from their ancestral lands. Upon arrival, they were subjected to a rigorous regimen aimed at eradicating their Native identity and culture. The trauma inflicted upon Native children in these boarding schools reverberates through generations, contributing to a legacy of intergenerational trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues within Indigenous communities. Many survivors of the boarding school system have shared harrowing accounts of abuse, neglect, and cultural genocide, highlighting the profound impact of this assimilationist policy on Native peoples.

#6 Eugenics and Minority Sterilization

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The history of eugenics in America is a shameful testament to the nation’s dark legacy of systemic racism and discrimination. Targeting minority groups deemed “unfit” or “undesirable,” including African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and immigrants, eugenic policies resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands of individuals under the guise of improving the genetic quality of the population.

These coercive measures, often implemented without consent or knowledge, inflicted lasting trauma and injustice on victims, perpetuating cycles of marginalization and inequality. The legacy of eugenics continues to haunt America, underscoring the ongoing struggle for justice and equity in a society marred by its history of racial oppression.

#7 U.S. Colonization of the Philippines

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“I was taught in schools the Spanish gave the Philippines to the USA. More like the Spanish left, the Philippines thought they should be independent and we came in and kicked a**.”

The brutal colonization of the Philippines by the United States is often glossed over in history classes. The atrocities committed by American forces, including torture and mass killings, highlight the hypocrisy of American ideals in practice.

Contrary to the narrative of benevolent annexation, the United States forcibly seized control of the Philippines from Spain following the Spanish-American War. The Filipino people, who had long fought for independence from Spanish colonial rule, found themselves facing a new oppressor as American forces crushed their aspirations for self-determination through violent means, including the use of torture and other atrocities. This dark period in American history serves as a stark reminder of the contradictions between our nation’s professed ideals of freedom and democracy and our actions as a colonial power.

#8 Missouri Executive Order 44

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Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the “Extermination Order,” issued by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1838, sanctioned violence against members of the Mormon Church, leading to widespread persecution and atrocities such as the Haun’s Mill Massacre, where 21 innocent individuals were brutally killed.

The order authorized the expulsion or extermination of Mormons from the state, reflecting the deeply ingrained religious intolerance and discrimination of the time. This tragic episode in American history serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of unchecked bigotry and the importance of upholding religious freedom and tolerance for all.

#9 Gulf of Tonkin Incident

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The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, occurring in 1964, was a pivotal event that served as a pretext for the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Initially reported as North Vietnamese aggression against U.S. ships, subsequent investigations and declassified documents revealed a different story. The CIA and NSA were found to have been involved in the fabrication of the incidents that led to U.S. airstrikes, including the erroneous claim that U.S. ships were attacked. The incident highlights the dangers of misinformation and manipulation in shaping foreign policy decisions, underscoring the need for transparency and accountability in government actions.

#10 The Compromise of 1876

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“The republicans really wanted the presidency, but the Democrats were slated to win. So the Democrats said we’ll give you the presidency if you remove all the American troops occupying the South. So they did, and they did. This compromise allowed the South to restart slavery (wage slavery this time. Much easier if you can get your workers to pay for their own room and board). Multiple lynchings of elected black politicians, lots of Jim crow laws enacted to disenfranchise black voters, and the rest is history.”

The Compromise of 1876 effectively ended Reconstruction and allowed for the resurgence of white supremacy in the South. This political deal sacrificed the rights of African Americans in exchange for political power, setting the stage for decades of racial oppression.

#11 Iran-Contra Affair

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The Iran-Contra affair, a scandal that unfolded during the Reagan administration, shattered the illusion of Ronald Reagan as a flawless leader. The revelation of covert actions involving arms sales to Iran and the diversion of funds to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua exposed a significant breach of trust and disregard for the rule of law within the U.S. government.

The affair underscored the dangers of unchecked executive power and highlighted the lengths to which leaders would go to advance their agendas, even if it meant circumventing democratic processes and violating international law. This dark chapter in American history serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of transparency, accountability, and adherence to constitutional principles in maintaining the integrity of democratic governance.

#12 Ugandan “Kill the Gays” Bill

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“The “Kill the Gays” Bill in Uganda is directly related to America televangelists that were feeling the “white man’s burden” bug and decided to bring their messed up ideas about sexuality to Africa.

Now all we talk about in schools is how “some countries aren’t as tolerant” as America, but we never talk about how America screwed up their history, so we can pretend that we’re so progressive when we actually screwed over so many people’s lives.”

The Ugandan “Kill the Gays” Bill stands as a stark example of the harmful impact of cultural imperialism and the propagation of intolerant ideologies by American televangelists in Africa. Rooted in a misguided sense of moral superiority, these individuals spread misinformation and bigotry, contributing to the persecution and violence faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in Uganda. This dark legacy underscores the need to confront the role of Western influence in perpetuating discrimination and to work towards genuine progress and equality for all, both at home and abroad.

#13 The Fall of Saigon

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In American history education, several aspects of the Vietnam War are often not adequately addressed or fully explored. This includes the complexities of the conflict’s origins, the perspectives of the Vietnamese people, and the broader global context of the Cold War. The war’s impact on civilians, including the devastation caused by bombing campaigns and the widespread use of chemical agents like Agent Orange, is often glossed over. Additionally, the anti-war movement within the United States and the experiences of veterans, particularly those who opposed the war or suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are sometimes sidelined or minimized in traditional narratives. Finally, the long-term consequences of the war, both domestically and internationally, including its influence on U.S. foreign policy and military interventions, are not always thoroughly examined.

#14 The Louisiana Purchase and Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture
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“We aren’t taught about Toussaint Louverture leading the Haitian army to beat Napoleon and the French army. It was the cause for the sale of the Louisiana territory and the addition of laws to ensure no slave revolts would happen in the states. I believe this is dark, because in my history classes until college, the only time Blacks were brought up, it was as slaves. Black history month literally consist of the four same people, and honestly, until I experienced and learned more, this lack of knowledge played into how I viewed Blacks.”

The Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history, profoundly influenced the Louisiana Purchase by destabilizing France’s colonial empire and prompting Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Despite its pivotal role, the connection between the Haitian Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase is often overlooked in history classes. This omission reflects a broader pattern of neglecting significant contributions and influences of Black individuals and movements in shaping American history, highlighting the need for more inclusive and comprehensive education on the complexities of the past.

#15 Forgotten Camps: WWII Internment of Japanese and German Americans

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The detention camps for Japanese and German citizens in the United States during World War II represent a dark chapter in American history that is often overlooked in mainstream education. Approximately 100,000 Japanese Americans and around 10,000 German Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps, where they were held for the duration of the war. While the conditions in these camps were not as severe as those in Nazi concentration camps, the mass imprisonment of individuals based on their ethnicity or nationality is a violation of civil liberties and a stain on American democracy. Despite the magnitude of this injustice, it is rarely given adequate attention in school curricula, highlighting the need for a more comprehensive and honest examination of the complexities of wartime history and the impact of discriminatory policies on marginalized communities.

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