The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five professors say the 1619 Project should be amended. ‘We disagree,’ says the New York Times.

The New York Times building in 2011. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Five historians recently wrote to the New York Times Magazine, asking the architects of its comprehensive 1619 Project, which tells the founding narrative of America through the lens of slavery, to issue several corrections. They argued that assertions in the 1619 package about the motivations that sparked the Revolutionary War and President Abraham Lincoln’s views on black equality were misleading.

“We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project,” wrote the five professors, from Princeton University, Texas State University, Brown University and the City University of New York.

In a lengthy response published online over the weekend, New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein addressed each concern from the professors but stood firmly behind the reporting and declined to correct it.

“Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding,” Silverstein wrote. “While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.”

It is America’s original sin. So why haven’t the nation’s schools done a better job of teaching about slavery?

When the 1619 Project dropped in August, 400 years to the month after the first enslaved Africans landed in the English colonies that became the United States, readers of the New York Times could not get enough. Paper copies of the Times Magazine swiftly sold out and then sold out again.

In the months since, Times journalists have announced that their reporting will become a book, which, like the magazine, will argue that the country’s founding year was a century and a half before 1776. In the magazine and an accompanying podcast, reporters and academics argued that the American narrative long recycled and widely shared in classrooms and history books is not the full story. The 1619 Project, according to the Times, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The project, conceived and shepherded by Times Magazine writer and MacArthur Foundation fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones, delved into the ways racism and segregation have affected American infrastructure, music, health care, criminal justice and education. In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, the Times developed a free 1619 curriculum that teachers can implement in their classrooms.

The work did not publish without critique, including from those who wished it had mentioned African slavery in Spanish-occupied Florida before 1619, but the overwhelming public reception was reverent — until last week.

On Dec. 16, Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Elliot Kaufman brought into the mainstream criticisms of the 1619 Project from four historians who had been questioning it for months on the World Socialist website, a fringe news publication founded upon the principles of Trotskyism. Some of what those professors wrote had gained momentum in the Twitterverse and sparked discussion about their analysis of the 1619 Project.

Those criticisms were repeated in their correction request, signed by the four original dissenters and a fifth professor.

“We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them,” the professors wrote in their request. “Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.”

Those errors, the five professors say, include an assertion in Hannah-Jones’s essay, which leads the project, about the events that preceded the American Revolution. “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology,” Hannah-Jones wrote, “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.”

In their correction request, the professors called this “not true” and wrote that “if supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”

Silverstein countered that claim, citing the work of historians David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart, and the 1775 Dunmore Proclamation. Issued by the colonial governor of Virginia, the Dunmore Proclamation “offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army,” Silverstein wrote.

The Times Magazine editor continued:

The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.

The professors also questioned Hannah-Jones’s presentation of Lincoln’s views on racial equality, calling it “misleading” because it “ignores” some of his documented assertions about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Silverstein recounted Hannah-Jones’s reporting, placing it in the greater context of the goals of the 1619 Project.

He wrote:

Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.

The correction request was signed by Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James M. McPherson and Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, James Oakes of the City University of New York and Gordon S. Wood of Brown University.

Silverstein wrote in his response that the professors’ letter was the magazine’s “first major request for correction” regarding the 1619 Project but that the Times has welcomed critique from those acting in good faith and has decided to incorporate some of that feedback into the expanding book. In 2020, Silverstein said, the Times will host public conversations between historians with differing views on the framing of United States history.

“You do not produce a project like this and not expect pushback,” Hannah-Jones tweeted about the correction request. “History, in general, is contested. Historians debate, disagree and interpret differently the same set of facts. Historians also produce history from a vantage point. This project unsettled many. I think that is good.”

Hannah-Jones said she has engaged with and “taken … to heart” critical scholars who reached out to her directly, but she said none of the five professors who wrote the correction request did that.

The purpose of the project, Silverstein wrote, was to “expand the reader’s sense of the American past.”

“That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books,” he wrote. “Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.”

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