From the moment Fatima Morrell read The New York Times’ 1619 Project last year, the educator embraced the 100-page magazine special issue on slavery and racism as a professional godsend. Morrell, an associate superintendent in the Buffalo, N.Y., school district, where 80% of the 31,200 students are non-white, was inspired by the project’s reframing of American history that put the struggles and contributions of black Americans “at the very center” of the nation’s self-understanding.
“I just think it really becomes a curriculum of emancipation, a pedagogy of liberation, for freeing the minds of young people,” said Morrell, who was involved in the decision to adopt the 1619 Project as part of the district’s curriculum. “Particularly for our black children, it lets them know there actually isn’t something wrong with you. We don’t need to be self-destructive, to hate ourselves. There actually was an institution of enslavement that really put us 400 years behind in terms of where we are with prosperity."
Since its publication in August, the 1619 Project has been adopted in more than 3,500 classrooms in all 50 states, according to the 2019 annual report of the Pulitzer Center, which has partnered with the Times on the project. Five school systems, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., have adopted it district-wide. It is mostly being used as supplemental, optional classroom teaching material. By and large, school systems are adopting the project by administrative fiat, not through a public textbook review process.
Even as it is being embraced by schools, the project is facing strong pushback from some leading scholars who say it presents a false version of American history. They dispute The New York Times’ claim that America’s true founding date is not 1776, the year the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, but 1619, when 20 to 30 enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va., leading to the creation of a “slavocracy” whose legacy of racism and oppression has been encoded in the nation’s DNA and hidden in plain sight.
Gordon Wood, a leading historian of the American Revolution and emeritus professor at Brown University, told RealClearInvestigations the Times material “is full of falsehoods and distortions.” In its current form, without corrections, which the Times has declined to run, the only way to use it in the classroom, he said, would be “as a way of showing how history can be distorted and perverted."
The 1619 Project reflects disputes about both the facts and meaning of American history at a time when the nation is divided by identity politics, including a movement to transform education in colleges and high schools through “ethnic studies,” an approach that emphasizes teaching about white oppression of minorities and their resistance to “whiteness.” Proponents of ethnic studies use the term “whiteness” to refer to the political, economic and cultural power structure imposed by a dominant culture of white Europeans.
Defenders of ethnic studies argue the movement is a necessary corrective to a whitewashed version of history. But critics denounce it as propaganda used to indoctrinate students. And they're troubled by the endorsement of racial and identity-based histories by prestigious institutions such as the New York Times and publicly funded schools.
The project’s leader, Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, has declared since the magazine’s publication that her goal “is that there'll be a reparations bill passed” – meaning financial reparations for slavery and subsequent racial discrimination. The newspaper editorial board has never officially endorsed such legislation, but several Times columnists and contributing writers have.
The 1619 Project is also a bold departure from traditional journalism that aims to provide readers with impartial information and a range of perspectives, rather than to unilaterally declare whose perspective is and isn’t true. Instead of telling readers it is presenting a controversial view of history, endorsed by a minority of historians, the national newspaper of record declares in the opening pages of the 1619 Project: “It is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
That stance appears to fit into a broader strategy. In a staff meeting in August, Executive Editor Dean Baquet said filtering news through the prism of race is a newsroom goal, according to coverage in Slate.com, with the 1619 Project setting the standard on how it should be done.
“One reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that,” Baquet reportedly said. He added that the Times committed to the 1619 Project “to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.”
Through its 18 articles and 15 artistic contributions, the 1619 Project declares that much of American history unfolded from that fateful event in 1619: chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, incarceration and urban poverty, as well as legacies not as widely understood, such as obesity. Its essays, written by a team of mostly African-American journalists and historians, argue that modern accounting methods, urban traffic patterns, resistance to adopting universal health care, overconsumption of sugar – and American capitalism itself – are some of the insidious ways that the legacy of slavery shapes our society today.
It contends that no one has a greater claim to this country than African Americans, whose centuries-long struggle for freedom and full citizenship rights redeemed the United States by keeping alive its revolutionary ideals.
With the imprimatur of the New York Times and its partners, this view has migrated quickly from the news pages to the classroom.
With the nonprofit, Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – which is not connected to Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prizes – the Times has created reading guides, lesson plans and extension activities for classrooms.
In January, Buffalo Public Schools became the most recent school system to announce that it was making the 1619 Project a required component of the 7th- through 12th-grade curriculum.
According to the school district, the 1619 Project will help “render a true history of the institution of slavery for all students, a history which is often silenced in mainstream curriculum and textbooks.” The Pulitzer Center donated 5,600 copies of the magazine-length 1619 Project for all of its 11th- and 12th-grade teachers and students.
The rate of adoption, in just six months, is noteworthy.
“This is definitely not business-as-usual; it’s an unusual event in textbooks and course adoptions,” said Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of “From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline." “The entire school district is saying, ‘This is our official supplement.’ It’s the prestige of having the entire school system saying, ‘This is something you should take a look at.’”
Meanwhile, publishing giant Random House plans four 1619-themed books for young readers; its Clarkson Potter imprint is readying a 1619 Project special illustrated edition; and Ten Speed Press is set to publish a “graphic novelization” of the project. The effort also includes a podcast in five episodes and a kids’ section in the Times print edition. A special broadsheet with a story on how slavery is taught in U.S. schools includes a history of slavery depicted in 15 objects as curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The books will involve The New York Times’ creative team behind the 1619 Project, led by Hannah-Jones, an award-winning journalist, who in 2017 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her reporting about segregation and racism in America’s educational systems.
Hannah-Jones, who suggested the 1619 Project to her editors, oversaw its execution. She also wrote the lead essay, “The Idea of America,” which now famously asserts the United States’ founding ideals of equality and liberty, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, were a “lie” to the founders who birthed them, but ultimately realized by African Americans who embraced those ideals and fought for them, largely alone.
Hannah-Jones did not respond to RealClearInvestigation’s interview requests, but she has spoken extensively about the 1619 Project in recent months. As the project’s chief ambassador, Hannah-Jones, has taken to Twitter to explain and defend it against detractors, as well as to challenge their motives and question their credentials.
On a national speaking tour, Hannah-Jones has elaborated on the project’s intent and how it should be understood. Her message consistently aims to connect past to present, tracing a moral complicity that she says white America refuses to recognize.
"If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations,” she told the Chicago Tribune in October.
On the Karen Hunter talk program in December, Hannah-Jones expounded on that theme.
“You cannot read the entire magazine and not come away understanding that a great debt is owed and it's time for this country to pay,” she said. “When my editor asks me, like, what's your ultimate goal for the project, my ultimate goal is that there'll be a reparations bill passed.”
Hannah-Jones pressed her goal at a University of Chicago event in October, explaining her modus operandi as a journalist.
“I think we really need to question why people are so opposed to making restitution for what was done,” she said to applause from the audience.
“I'm not writing to convert Trump supporters. I write to try to get liberal white people to do what they say they believe in,” she said. “I'm making a moral argument. My method is guilt.”
And at an Xavier University event, Hannah-Jones extemporized upon the concept of collective guilt being predicated on the continued enjoyment of present-day economic and social advantages. A century-and-a-half after slavery was abolished, she said, white people continue to benefit and profit from slavery’s legacy.
“I’m not expecting that white people should feel guilty about slavery if you didn’t enslave anybody yourself,” she explained. “But I am saying that you can’t pretend that you’re free of that legacy. And you can’t pretend that you’re not benefiting today from that legacy.”
“Your work is not to apologize for slavery, though the federal government should,” she continued. “But your work is to look that life that you lead now is a direct connection. You inherit the good, but you also inherit the bad. You inherit the debt that is owed.”
Ultimately, Hannah-Jones’ hope is that the 1619 Project would make it impossible for white people not to see their privileged status in American society. On the Karen Hunter show, she said getting a reparations bill passed may not be a realistic goal, “but it feels more realistic than, like, can we get white Americans to stop being white?”
“So I don't know that this project can get white people to give up whiteness,” Hannah-Jones said, “but it can certainly expose for them what whiteness is.”
None of this is overtly mentioned in the 1619 Project – Hannah-Jones said that a reparations essay was originally planned but fell through – but she says she is now working on a sequel that will explore what restitution is owed. In her public appearances, she has said reparations should take the form of cash payments to African Americans as well as more vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws and other social programs.
That racial fatalism and reparations should inform the 1619 Project comes as no surprise to scholars who have studied race in America and responses to racism.
“This is called Afro-pessimism,” said Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who is also an adjunct faculty member of the Africana Studies Institute and in the Race, Ethnicity and Politics program. “There is a whole branch of thought that … racism is fundamental to the economic and political structure of the United States.”
Some scholars admire the New York Times’ goal of promoting a greater awareness of slavery and racism.
Julia Jordan-Zachery, chair of the Africana Studies Department at UNC-Charlotte, said that the 1619 Project fits in the mold of activist scholarship for social justice.
“Most work that comes out of ethnic studies, and black studies in particular, is about social justice and about equity and about democracy,” Jordan-Zachery said. “It’s about producing socially functional information, not just providing information for information’s sake.”
Other historians are concerned that such controversial, outcome-oriented material is being taught in classrooms without the normal vetting required for textbooks. John Bickford, associate professor of social studies education at Eastern Illinois University, said free material provided by authoritative institutions such as the Times are attractive to schools that are “absolutely cash-strapped” and to teachers who are overworked and have little time to conduct their own research.
“For the most part you have white authors and white teachers dealing with this material,” Bickford said. “I would imagine there are a lot of teachers whose first name is Coach and who are far more interested in showing a movie in class.”
Still, he has problems with The New York Times’ presentation of the material. “One of the problems I see with the 1619 Project is they’re trying to get you to adopt a polemic,” Bickford said.
Five prominent professors – Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James McPherson of Princeton University, James Oakes of CUNY, Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, and Gordon Wood of Brown University – first expressed their concerns about the 1619 Project after being contacted by the World Socialist Web Site. The Trotskyist site has been amassing critiques of the 1619 Project as shoddy history and as an affront to the Marxist view of world history as class conflict, and plans a book on the material, said David North of the site.
Of particular concern was the claim in Hannah-Jones’ lead essay that the American Revolution was a war of secession instigated to perpetuate slavery, as if the American Revolution were analogous to the Civil War.
“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.”
The five then wrote a letter to the New York Times requesting corrections, saying they were dismayed by inaccuracies that “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Among their concerns was the 1619 Project’s characterization of President Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist and assertions that black Americans fought for freedom and civil rights without the support of whites.
The Times responded in a lengthy letter from Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein, who explained that differences of interpretation of historical facts, based on the work of academic historians, don’t rise to the level of a correctable error. Silverstein said the premise of the 1619 Project is that today’s glaring black-white disparities in health care, education, earnings and other metrics are “a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people.”
The magazine editor suggested that historians are just catching up to this reality. Without acknowledging that the Times was advancing an unorthodox view held by a minority of academics and theorists, Silverstein asserted that, “Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.”
Separately, a dozen Civil War scholars and political scientists wrote a letter in December to the Times Magazine, but their letter was never published. The researchers -- who teach at Princeton, Yale, Notre Dame, Washington & Lee, Loyola, Villanova and other universities – published their complaint, and the New York Times’ response, independently, in late January in George Washington University's History News Network.
"We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times,” they wrote. “The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights.”
Hannah-Jones has addressed the critics in public and on Twitter. She said on Twitter that she should have been clearer that the perpetuation of slavery wasn’t a universal motive for all American revolutionaries, but a primary motive for many slave-owning patriots nonetheless.
Speaking at Harvard University in December, she said the decision not to credit white abolitionists was a deliberate choice.
“I don’t see giving you credit for fighting to end an institution that you created. That’s just the way that I think about it,” she said. “We have had plenty of stories in 400 years about white heroism. We have given outsize attention to what I would call good white people.”
And she said including those details would have blunted the moral force of her narrative: “I think it was important not to give white people that escape when they were reading this.”
“This is a bottom-up history about people who never get any credit,” she said. “Very intentionally we were creating a counter-narrative.”
Historian Gordon Wood told the World Socialist Web Site that the idea of highlighting slavery and the African American experience is a much needed corrective to past omissions, but the 1619 Project miscasts American slavery as a unique phenomenon rather than a common worldwide practice that had existed for thousands of years and merited no special concern until American colonists began agitating for its abolition.
“In the northern states, the massive movement against slavery was unprecedented in the history of the world,” said Wood, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” published in 1993. “So to somehow turn this around and make the Revolution a means of preserving slavery is strange and contrary to the evidence.”
“If it just had been confined to that one magazine, we’d just forget about it and it would disappear from our consciousness,” Wood told RealClearInvestigations. “But now they’re going to work out a real effort to get it into the classrooms.
“And it’s got the authority of The New York Times, a powerful institution in our country,” he said. “That’s what I think is alarming.”
For her part, Hannah-Jones has asserted that there is no such thing as objective history, and took pride in the fact that, as reported in the Atlantic magazine, some historians declined to sign their letter.
“What’s interesting to me is these scholars who are so worried about the 1619 curriculum going in the schools, I wish I had seen these letters and concerns about the way our children are being taught about slavery right now,” she told Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair of Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies, at the Harvard event.
Gates expressed admiration for the 1619 Project but rebuked Hannah-Jones for some of her choices, including the decision to ignore the role played by African chieftains, who kidnapped blacks for the slave trade.
“Talk about the African world and the slave trade,” Gates urged her. “This is something black people don't want to talk about. ... This has got to be full disclosure. And we’ve got to talk about that.”
“It's very important not to be politically correct but to be honest about that,” Gates said. “Because it doesn't take away the arguments for reparations.”
The controversy over the 1619 Project has not caused the Pulitzer Center to rethink its promotion of The New York Times series, said spokesman Jeff Barrus.
“Historical scholarship, like journalism, is often fraught with controversy, as people of good faith can disagree over the meaning of historical facts,” Barrus said by email. “We have not seen compelling evidence that the 1619 Project is factually inaccurate — what we have seen are disagreements with the 1619 Project’s conclusions regarding what the legacy of slavery means to American democracy and our national identity.”
(RealClearInvestigations has an unrelated article produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.)
The 1619 debate is playing out as administrators and educators are introducing the 1619 Project to students who now number in the “tens of thousands,” according to the Pulitzer Center annual report’s estimate.
Shana Hairston, a high school history teacher at the John Dickinson School in the Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, Del., said the 1619 Project is a rich resource that can be used in a wide variety of classes. For example, Hairston will be teaching a personal finance class this semester and said she could teach students about how capitalism works by using the 1619 Project essay linking capitalism to slavery.
The Red Clay school system, with more than 16,000 students, received 850 copies of the 1619 Project, said Dr. Tawanda Bond, director of the district’s Equity and Strategic Partnerships. Teachers will not be required to use the material, Bond said.
Holly Golder, the district’s social studies supervisor, said the 1619 Project will help students understand that historians disagree on how to interpret key facts, and that students should not accept statements on authority but investigate for themselves.
“All history is interpretation, no matter what anyone tells you,” Golder said.
Other teachers and administrators said they plan to introduce students to the 1619 controversy to get them to think about how history is shaped.
“It provides us an opportunity to make that debate concrete for our students – to let them debate the legitimacy of the 1619 Project,” said Edwin Ruiz, director of curriculum and instruction at New Jersey’s Asbury Park School District, where 99% of the 1,850 students are non-white.
Morrell, the associate superintendent for the Office of Culturally & Linguistically Responsive Initiatives at Buffalo Public Schools, said the five white historians challenging the accuracy of the 1619 Project represent, to her, “just another form of oppression.”
She said that Buffalo teachers won’t be prevented from teaching multiple perspectives on the 1619 Project, but they may need permission to do so because they are expected to teach the material that is required in the curriculum.
“We’re teaching the district-approved curriculum,” Morrell said. “If a teacher wants to bring that [critique of the 1619 Project] in, he or she may have to have a conversation with their director of instruction to see how that instruction aligns and fits in with the larger state of the curriculum.”