The 1619 Project reopens book on slavery but not without controversy

New York Times historical initiative, launched in 2019, sparks national conservative backlash
A sign commemorating the arrival of the first Africans is displayed at Chesapeake Bay, in Hampton, Virginia.



A sign commemorating the arrival of the first Africans is displayed at Chesapeake Bay, in Hampton, Virginia.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Weekend Read is a new project by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Content Curation Desk. The team will take a deeper dive at issues that affect Georgians and others throughout the nation. Today’s topic: The 1619 Project.

It was the proverbial shot heard around the world in 2019.

The 1619 Project started with an essay in The New York Times last August that brought renewed attention to a largely hidden history — the beginnings of American slavery more than 150 years before the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

In the newly settled but poorly planned colony of Jamestown, 1619 was a grueling and precarious time.

The colony was surrounded by a harsh and marshy wilderness rife with disease, starvation and despair.

There was no fresh water, and drought was common.

Food was in short supply because there were not many farmers among them.

The first settlers were also under orders from the British crown to prioritize the search for precious metals and to obtain food by trading with the local natives. Persistent hunger and desperation led to strife and distrust between the colony’s leaders, while mosquitoes and famine killed thousands.

Historical accounts say things got so bad that some turned to cannibalism to survive.

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It was during this time that the first 20 or so indentured servants from Africa arrived in the British colonies for the first time at Point Comfort, Virginia, near Jamestown in 1619.

It was 127 years after Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 and 157 years before Thomas Jefferson penned the iconic words of the 1776 American Revolution that declared “all men are created equal.”

When Jamestown was established in 1607, slave labor was already in full swing throughout the Caribbean and on North American soil in present-day South Carolina and in Spanish colonial Florida, especially around St. Augustine.

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In the Chesapeake Bay region, native Africans brought to America became indentured servants and were able to earn their freedom after a prescribed period of time. Some of them went on to become slave owners themselves, proponents to a system of oppression that gradually evolved into chattel slavery — the cornerstone of a fledgling economy that put the country on a collision course with the Civil War.

By 1640, the first slave law appeared on the books in Virginia, which condemned a Black man to lifelong servitude after trying to escape, marking the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies.

400 years later

Four hundred years later, an ambitious and ever-expanding historical initiative called The 1619 Project is reexamining the early American experience through the lens of this period in an effort to reassess slavery’s lasting legacy and as a way to highlight Black history, which has been mostly left out of American history books.

Conservatives around the country, including prominent members of the Trump administration and several Republican senators, have adamantly condemned the project in recent weeks.

The relevance of the initiative seems more pronounced now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — the horrors of the slave trade and the continued public visibility of its relics are now fueling widespread calls against systemic racism. Around the country, numerous Confederate monuments viewed as painful symbols of the country’s brutal past have also been toppled.

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The 1619 Project is now embarking on its second year at a pivotal moment of racial reckoning in America, with the aim of showing how institutional slavery and racism intertwined with American idealism from the very beginning, then slowly ingrained into the deeper context of the nation’s principles of freedom and liberty.

The first ideas put forth by the project debuted in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 — a catalog of 100 pages of essays, poems, short stories and photos developed by 16 contributors.

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The shared premise among them, and other social intellectuals who have joined the effort since, is rooted in the notion that slavery cannot be viewed simply as a dark and irrelevant period in American history.

To the contrary, the collective finds that slavery’s historical underpinnings remain perceptible today and continue to influence American policies and institutions.

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The rapid reawakening to this fuller picture of Black culture and history is somewhat reminiscent of the zenith that was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s for its broad community approach to telling the story of slavery.

An ambitious and ever-expanding historical initiative called The 1619 Project is reexamining the early American experience through the lens of slavery in an effort to reassess the brutal institution’s lasting legacy and as a way to highlight Black history, which has been mostly left out of American history books.

Credit: The New York Times

icon to expand image

Credit: The New York Times

Nearly all the contributors to the project are African American, which stewards of the project said they felt essential to provide a raw perspective of the Black experience.

A quick glimpse of titles from the project’s essays indicate the willingness of the project to address tough topics about the issue of race:

  • ”American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.”
  • ”Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?”
  • ”How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam”
  • ”Why Doesn’t America Have Universal Healthcare? One word: Race”
  • ”Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery”

The project’s launch in 2019 was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Black slaves in Jamestown, the British Empire’s first permanent settlement in the New World.

Coincidentally, this week marked the 401-year anniversary of the first representative assembly in America. The Virginia General Assembly gathered in Jamestown only weeks before the first slaves arrived there.

How the project began

A Pulitzer Prize-winning commentary titled “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” written by Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, examined how slavery shaped the institutions of religion, politics and finance in America during the last 400 years.

Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Commentary on May 4, 2020. She was recognized for her essay examining how slavery shaped the country -- from its democracy to its material wealth -- and how slavery’s legacy has persisted for the 400 years since the first slave ship reached Virginia. It was part of The 1619 Project, a series from New York Times writers and guest essayists.

Credit: NYT

icon to expand image

Credit: NYT

The column served as the basis for The 1619 Project.

Hannah-Jones initially proposed dedicating the August 2019 issue of the New York Times Magazine to the cause, but the newspaper quickly realized the potential for a much larger, ongoing endeavor.

The initiative has since grown to include multiple issues of the magazine and a regularly appearing special section of the newspaper in which essays, poems, works of short fiction and photo essays by Times staff and other professionals highlight the continuing influence of slavery on contemporary life.

The project also hosts live events and a series of podcasts.

The cumulative result has been something of a renaissance of lost history, with fresh ideas being reintroduced into mainstream thought in America.

Why all the controversy?

The 1619 Project’s effort to reopen the book on slavery has sparked a steady drumbeat of conservative criticism.

Those attacking the initiative argue that connecting the institutional structures of 17th-century America to the present day is unpatriotic and harmful to the national lore.

Beyond that, the most controversial aspect of the project appears to be the curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for the project’s implementation in elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S.

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The Pulitzer Center offers free online courses on the curriculum and is collecting further lesson plans from teachers. The center also helps arrange for speakers to visit classes. The Center considers most of the lessons usable by all grades from elementary school through college, according to reports.

Critics and experts alike have challenged the accuracy of some of the project’s assertions and historical claims. The Times focused closely on mitigating these concerns by hiring a panel of historians to check facts that emerged from the research.

In February 2020, a rival project called the 1776 Project was launched by competing Black academics to address alleged historical inaccuracies put forth by The 1619 Project.

More criticism than praise

The right-wing backlash sprang up almost immediately after the project debuted.

Prominent conservatives including Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz and Erick Erickson were among the early opponents who were seen and heard railing against the new directive on TV, radio and social media in 2019.

Gingrich wrote an op-ed calling the project “left-wing propaganda masquerading as ‘the truth.’”

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, on the other hand, praised the project’s debut, declaring on Twitter that “The #1619Project is a powerful and necessary reckoning of our history. We cannot understand and address the problems of today without speaking truth about how we got here.”

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But with the nation approaching the November election, grumblings about the project are beginning to bubble up again.

In a recent interview on Fox News Sunday, President Donald Trump was asked why he had claimed that children were being taught in schools to hate their country.

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“I just look at — I look at school. I watch, I read, look at the stuff. Now they want to change — 1492, Columbus discovered America. You know, we grew up, you grew up, we all did, that’s what we learned. Now they want to make it the 1619 project. Where did that come from? What does it represent? I don’t even know.”

Mike Pompeo

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also weighed into the debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he announced a new policy on a human rights report that reflects the “nation’s founding principles.”

“Today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack,” Pompeo said July 16. “Instead of seeking to improve America, too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.”

He then specifically criticized The 1619 Project, describing it as part of “a dark vision of America’s birth” and a “disturbed reading of our history.”

In a statement, Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, responded to Pompeo’s criticism.

“The 1619 Project, based on decades of recent historical scholarship that has deepened our understanding of the country’s founding, is one of the most impactful works of journalism published last year,” she said. “We’re proud that it continues to spark a dialogue that allows us to reexamine our assumptions about the past.”

Tom Cotton

The 1619 Project was in the news again earlier this week after Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a strong ally of President Trump, was quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, deriding the 1619 curriculum and describing slavery as a “necessary evil” for America’s Founding Fathers.

Cotton called the proposed reinterpretation “a distortion of American history” and flatly dismissed The 1619 Project as “left-wing propaganda” and “revisionist history at its worst,” the paper reported.

Cotton has even introduced a bill to prevent federal funds and professional development grants from being given to schools that teach it.

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Cotton said he drafted the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” saying America was founded on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence rather than on the history of enslaved people, which began more than 100 years before the Declaration was signed. His bill would also make schools that teach the 1619 Project ineligible for federal professional-development grants.

Cotton recently called the project “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded. Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

Then on Sunday he was quoted in the Democrat-Gazette, saying: “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the founding fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

On social media, Cotton was peppered with criticism for the statement.

“If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a ‘necessary evil’ as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” tweeted Hannah-Jones.

Cotton, who is up for reelection this year, defended himself in a series of tweets, saying he did not endorse the phrase “necessary evil,” but said he was only highlighting the viewpoint of the Founding Fathers. In his response, Cotton also falsely claimed that the 1619 Project was “debunked.”

“This is the definition of fake news,” Cotton wrote on Twitter, responding to a steady stream of critics. “I said that *the Founders viewed slavery as a necessary evil*.”

Extensive reporting on the matter found no record of the Founding Fathers ever using the phrase “necessary evil” to describe or defend slavery in the United States, according to CNN.

Hannah-Jones followed up again with Cotton on Twitter, saying: “You said, quote: ‘As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ That ‘as’ denotes agreement.”

Cotton also told the newspaper that “Curriculum is a matter for local decisions, and if local left-wing school boards want to fill their children’s heads with anti-American rot, that’s their regrettable choice. But they ought not to benefit from federal tax dollars to teach America’s children to hate America.”

ArLuther Lee writes about national and international news for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida and has worked for newspapers for more than 24 years. He joined the AJC staff as the front page designer in 2003.

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