The 1619 Project: A Public Historian's Perspective

The 1619 Project, while flawed, is critical to understanding the role of race in American history.

History is a finicky thing. Research methods are constantly evolving, and ways of studying that were once considered golden today are revealed to be flawed tomorrow. Previous understandings of the past sometimes fall apart or are revised upon finding new evidence. In many cases, researchers go in thinking one thing about a given subject only to come out of their project thinking something completely different. However, that process depends largely on the independence of the researcher and their ability to analyze the sources they’re using critically. However, recently, that independence has been under attack by members of the U.S government with one project in mind: The 1619 Project.

Bring in the Politicos

If a person ever wanted to measure the reaction to the 1619 Project and the essays it produced, one need only look at the public statements released by the Republican party’s most bombastic members. In July of 2020, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill that would’ve prohibited providing federal funds to schools that used the 1619 project as curriculum material if it had been passed. The move by Cotton was prompted by his aversion to what he saw as a “racially divisive” work that served to “indoctrinate young Americans…”1 Similarly, former President Donald Trump denounced the project in a now-infamous speech before the National Archives.2 And just last week, the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a letter that called upon the Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, to pull the essays from an educational program by the Department of Education.3 Not bothering to stop with just denouncing the project, some went further.

These efforts were later followed up by the 1776 Commission, which was, in turn, lampooned by historians.4 Professional historians so detested that the American Historical Association, one of the most well-respected historical organizations in the country, released a statement condemning the report, something it did not do for the 1619 Project. 5 All of this culminated in an intense political and social war that, at its core, was a fight over what America was and is today. But in that fight, much of the nuances behind the project were lost. So that begs the question: what exactly is the 1619 Project?

When journalism and history meet

The 1619 Project is the brainchild of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, commentator, and Chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism, Nikole Hannah-Jones.6 It’s stated goal was “…to re-frame American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” 7 The significance of that date is revealing for several reasons, but the main one is that 1619 is the first year that African people arrived in a mainland English colony, all of whom were in chains.8 This was part of the reason that the New York Times’ project sparked so much interest, as it was released on the 400th anniversary of that infamous date of arrival.

The project was more than just a revision of previous understandings of slavery and the struggle for liberation by Black Americans, however. Much of the project was directed at understanding modern phenomena through the lens of previous acts of racial malfeasance. One article by Princeton Historian and author Kevin M. Kruse convincingly argues that Atlanta’s failure to address traffic results from White Flight tendencies that stretch back decades.9 I am particularly fond of Jamelle Bouie’s piece, which ties John C. Calhoun’s nullification theories with the obstructionist tendencies of modern American conservatism.10 But there was one essay that stood out above all the rest. The one that the project’s own creator wrote.

The essay that started it all

At the beginning of the 1619 Project’s publication, an introductory essay was put front and center titled America Wasn’t A Democracy Until Black American Made It One. The core thesis is that America’s ideals were publicly stated by its founders but were made a reality by the long-term and consistently painful efforts of Black activists who demanded equality for themselves and others. Hannah-Jones begins her essay with a powerful and deeply emotional story about how her father, Milton Hannah, a veteran and the son of sharecroppers in Greenwood, Mississippi, endured the repression of the Jim Crow South.11

This is significant not just for Hannah-Jones, but also for America itself as Greenwood was the site where Emmett Till’s body was found, and his killers, J W. Millam and Roy Bryant, were held.12 It was the site where White Citizens' Council member, Charles E. Sampson, was the Mayor, using his power to crack down on Civil Rights activists with police dogs, arresting famed SNCC activists Bob Moses and James Forman.13 In other words, this essay was always going to be personal and passionate.

From the beginning of her essay, Hannah-Jones holds little back, describing the violence her family faced in blunt terms.

White residents in Mississippi lynched more black people than those in any other state in the country, and the white people in my dad’s home county lynched more black residents than those in any other county in Mississippi, often for such “crimes” as entering a room occupied by white women, bumping into a white girl or trying to start a sharecroppers union. My dad’s mother, like all the black people in Greenwood, could not vote, use the public library or find work other than toiling in the cotton fields or toiling in white people’s houses. 14

Her grandmother, determined to leave the intense segregation of the South, fled to Waterloo, Iowa. Unfortunately, she would find that segregation did not end in Iowa either. The indignities that came with such repression inevitably affected her family, and at the age of 17, Hannah-Jones’ father joined the military. Previous generations of African-American soldiers joined and returned with a spirit of defiance, particularly in World War 2, using their exposure to the more egalitarian nations of Europe to demand change.15

Hannah, however, joined in the hopes that his military career would secure the respect of his country and help him escape poverty. However, that did not happen even with the military’s desegregation over a decade earlier.16 Once again, Hannah was forced to endure the racialized caste system he joined to escape.

Despite this perpetual malfeasance, Hannah retained a sense of patriotism, flying an American flag. Something that initially baffled his daughter.

So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.

However, such a position did not last, as Hannah-Jones would soon understand that her father retained his sense of being a part of America by virtue of his contributions to it, even if the country itself refused to admit they existed. Indeed, the rest of her essay hits on that note. To Hannah-Jones, the idea that African-American contributions to our democracy have been ignored is the whole point. Her father waved his flag not to celebrate what America did to him but in defiance against those who would insist that he was not an American and those who refused to recognize his sacrifice.

Describing this revelation, Hannah-Jones notes that:

Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

This, at its core, is what the essay is about. To fight for equality and to fight for liberty is the most American thing that anyone can do. Black Americans have been doing it from the nation’s inception should be remembered and taught more, something the project seeks to do.

Of course, there are aspects of anger to this work, as one would expect with such a painful issue as racism. Hannah-Jones is quick to remind America that one of its favorite sons, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence while in the company of his family’s slave, Robert Hemmings.17 She rightfully points out that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, of which American was a participant, was a particularly cruel form of subjugation due to its generational and racial elements. She strongly demonstrates the severity of the struggle for equality by critiquing traditional views of history. 18

Needless to say, this essay provoked immense controversy despite its triumphant narrative for Black Americans. In particular, the portrayal of the Civil War was concerning to several scholars, with some of them objecting to the representation of Lincoln as hesitant to end slavery and that some of the quotes attributed to Lincoln lack context.

…we are presented with an image of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, informing a delegation of “five esteemed free black men” at the White House that, because black Americans were a “troublesome presence,” his solution was colonization -- “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” No mention, however, is made that the “troublesome presence” comment is Lincoln’s description in 1852 of the views of Henry Clay, or that colonization would be “sloughed off” by him (in John Hay’s diary) as a “barbarous humbug,” or that Lincoln would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist in 1865 after calling for black voting rights, or that this was the man whom Frederick Douglass described as “emphatically the black man’s president.”19

These criticism were not without their supporters, nor were they without merit. Several of the mistakes mentioned in this letter remain unfixed by the Times’ editorial team. Had the editorial team made some revisions, it would’ve demonstrated transparency to the public. However, the mistakes in that particular essay do not end with poor and unnuanced representations of Lincoln.

As it was presented, the American Revolution is yet another error on the part of the Times’ project. In her essay, Hannah-Jones inaccurately claims that the American Revolution resulted from colonists’ desire to protect the institution of slavery. This argument is largely based on a case in Britain called the Somerset Case of 1772, which invalidated laws in Britain for sending escaped slaves back to their masters.20 There is also the Dunmore Proclamation, which promised enslaved people their permanent freedom if they fought for the crown. However, representing the English crown as a symbol of abolitionism ignores the fact that slavery had only been criminal in England proper by 1772 and remained legal across the empire until 1833.21

This inevitably exposed the project to misguided attempts to undermine its legitimacy, with the Heritage Foundation releasing a video to denounce the project by reasserting the same tired tropes that the Project sought to challenge in the first place.

To her credit, Hannah-Jones acknowledged the error and even expanded upon her thoughts with some revisions made on the claims of the American revolution. But the damage has been done.

So, where does that leave the 1619 Project? Was it just some failed revisionist attempt to misrepresent history? Should it be abandoned? In my humble opinion, the answer to both those questions is an unequivocal no. The 1619 Project was an honest, albeit flawed attempt to pull back the curtain on many of the orthodox misrepresentations of American history that have fed Americans a rosy picture that does not reflect reality. The 1619 Project’s errors aside, it was a step in the right direction. It was and still is a sorely needed addition to the public’s understanding of history. Whereas others may wish to end the project, I propose the opposite. The project should continue, but it should take care to avoid similar mistakes in the future. As Professor Leslie Harris of Northwestern University put it:

…the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history.22

If America is to ever grow beyond its past sins, it must first look inward and face them, and Hannah-Jones’ project is a critical part of that enterprise.

1

Anagha Srikanth, “Sen. Tom Cotton Introduces Bill Withholding Federal Funding for Schools Teaching the 1619 Project,” The Hill, July 23, 2020, accessed May 5, 2021, https://thehill.com/changing-america/enrichment/education/508820-sen-tom-cotton-introduces-bill-withholding-federal.

2

Fabiola Cineas, “Critical Race Theory, and Trump’s War on It, Explained,” Vox, September 24, 2020, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.vox.com/2020/9/24/21451220/critical-race-theory-diversity-training-trump.

3

Mitch McConnell et al., “Mitch McConnell to Miguel Cardona,” April 29, 2021, accessed 5 May, 2021, https://www.republicanleader.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FINAL%20DOE%20Civics%20Education%20Signed%204.29.21.pdf.

4

Nicole Guadiano, “Trump Creates 1776 Commission to Promote ‘Patriotic Education,’” POLITICO, n.d., accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/02/trump-1776-commission-education-433885.

5

“AHA Condemns Report of Advisory 1776 Commission,” January 20, 2021, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/aha-advocacy/aha-statement-condemning-report-of-advisory-1776-commission-(january-2021).

6

DeMicia Inman, “1619 Project Creator Nikole Hannah-Jones Joins UNC Faculty,” The Grio, April 28, 2021, accessed May 5, 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/1619-project-creator-nikole-hannah-232700270.html.

7

Jake Silverstein, “Why We Published The 1619 Project,” The New York Times accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/20/magazine/1619-intro.html.

8

Rebecca Ruiz, “1619 Is a Pivotal Date in American History for Two Reasons,” Mashable, n.d., accessed May 5, 2021, https://mashable.com/article/1619-why-does-it-matter/.

9

Kevin M. Kruse, “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/traffic-atlanta-segregation.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/traffic-atlanta-segregation.html.

10

Jamelle Bouie, “What the Reactionary Politics of 2019 Owe to the Politics of Slavery,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/republicans-racism-african-americans.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/republicans-racism-african-americans.html.

11

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

12

“The Murder of Emmett Till,” PBS, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/till-timeline/.

13

Claude Sitton, “8 Negroes Jailed in Mississippi; Sentenced to 4 Months and $200 Fines in Greenwood Police Dogs Held Ready ‘Foreign Agitators’ Scored Intercession Hoped For,” The New York Times, March 30, 1963, accessed May 6, 2021, http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1963/03/30/89525594.html.

14

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

15

`Leon F. Litwack, “‘Fight the Power!’ The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement,” The Journal of Southern History 75, no. 1 (2009): 3–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/27650400.

16

Lisa Vox, “How Executive Order 9981 Desegregated the U.S. Military,” ThoughtCo, October 18, 2019, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.thoughtco.com/executive-order-9981-us-military-desegregation-45360.

17

Hillel Italie, “Remembering the Slave Who Joined Jefferson in Philadelphia,” AP News, July 1, 2020, accessed May 6, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/0becfa1aeb292467fd837cb1c5714c8c.

18

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” The New York Times, August 14, 2019, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

19

William Allen et al., “Twelve Scholars Critique the 1619 Project and the New York Times Magazine Editor Responds | History News Network,” History News Network, last modified December 30, 2019, accessed May 5, 2021, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174140.

20

“Somersett Case | Great Britain [1772],” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Somersett-case.

21

Natasha Henry, “Slavery Abolition Act | History & Impact,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Slavery-Abolition-Act.

22

Leslie Harris, “Opinion | I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.,” POLITICO, March 6, 2020, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/1619-project-new-york-times-mistake-122248.