Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, according to a 2017 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And only 32 percent knew slavery was an institution designed to generate profits for slaveholders. Teachers who taught K-12 did better than students on some questions but did not score much higher on others. The concepts' phrasing was tightened for brevity; the full wording can be found in the “Teaching Hard History” report.

Source: Kate Shuster, “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Jan. 31, 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Concept Percentage of Teachers Percentage of Students
Slavery existed in all European North American colonies. 53% 52%
Slavery was central to the economy across North America. 58% 46%
Slavery was protected in U.S. founding documents, and enslavers dominated the federal government from 1787 to 1860. 52% 22%
Slavery was an institution to create profit for slaveholders and break the enslaved's will. 71% 32%
Enslaved people resisted efforts to reduce them to commodities. 60% 49%
Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. 64% 8%
Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race. 50% 39%

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