From the moment Fatima Morrell read The New York Times’ 1619 Project last year, the educator embraced the 100-page special issue on slavery and racism as a professional godsend. Morrell, an associate superintendent in the Buffalo, N.Y., school district, where 80 percent of the 31,200 students are non-white, was inspired by the project’s reframing of American history that put the struggles of black Americans “at the very center” of the nation’s self-understanding.
“I just think it really becomes a curriculum of emancipation,” 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. 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 every state, according to the 2019 annual report of the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which partnered with the Times on the project. Five school systems, including those in Chicago and Washington, D.C., have adopted it district-wide.
But even as it is embraced by schools, the project faces 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, when the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, but 1619, when 20 to 30 enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va.
Gordon Wood, a leading historian of the American Revolution and emeritus professor at Brown University, said 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 classrooms would be “as a way of showing how history can be distorted and perverted," he said.
The 1619 Project reinforces a movement to transform education in colleges and high schools through “ethnic studies,” an approach that emphasizes teaching about white oppression of minorities. 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.
The project’s leader, Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, has declared that her goal for the project “is that there'll be a reparations bill passed” – meaning financial reparations for slavery and subsequent racial discrimination.
Through its 18 articles and 15 artistic contributions, the 1619 Project declares that much of American history unfolded from that fateful arrival of slaves in 1619: Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, incarceration and urban poverty, as well as legacies not as widely understood, such as obesity. Its essays argue that various aspects of modern American life – from urban traffic patterns to overconsumption of sugar to capitalism itself – are among the insidious ways the legacy of slavery shapes our society today.
That view has migrated quickly from news pages to the classroom. With help from the Pulitzer Center, the Times created reading guides, lesson plans and extension activities for classrooms. Meanwhile, publishing giant Random House announced plans for numerous 1619-themed products for young readers, among them a “graphic novelization” of the project, a five-episode podcast and a kids’ section in the Times print edition.
Such support is surely gratifying to 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. She suggested the 1619 Project to her editors, oversaw its execution, and wrote the lead essay, “The Idea of America,” which 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.
Hannah-Jones did not respond to RealClearInvestigation’s interview requests, but she has spoken extensively about the 1619 Project in recent months. Her message consistently aims to trace 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.”
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.
Whatever Hannah-Jones’ ultimate aim, some prominent professors are troubled by the project’s liberties with history. Five of them – 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.
Of particular concern to the professors was the claim in Hannah-Jones’ lead essay 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.”
The five subsequently 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.” The Times responded with a lengthy letter from Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein, who asserted that differences in interpretation of historical facts don’t rise to the level of a correctable error.
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.
Meanwhile, administrators and educators across the country are introducing the 1619 Project to students who now number in the “tens of thousands,” according to the Pulitzer Center annual report’s estimate.