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How the 1619 Project took over 2020

It’s a hashtag, a talking point, a journalism case study, a scholarly mission, the subject of academic screeds and Trump rally riffs. But the 1619 Project began as a special edition of the New York Times magazine. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

One morning in mid-September, Nikole Hannah-Jones woke to a text message from a friend noting an unusual event on President Trump’s schedule: the first “White House Conference on American History.”

It might have sounded banal, but Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, sensed a subtext immediately: This was about her and the project she says is the most important work of her career.

Sure enough, that afternoon, Trump thundered from a lectern at the National Archives Museum that “the left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’s totally discredited 1619 Project.”

You’ve probably heard of it by now. The 1619 Project has emerged as a watchword for our era — a hashtag, a talking point, a journalism case study, a scholarly mission. It is the subject of dueling academic screeds, Fox News segments, publishers’ bidding wars and an upcoming series of Oprah-produced films. It is a Trump rally riff that reliably triggers an electric round of jeers.

At the National Archives Museum on Sept. 17, 2020, President Trump criticized a New York Times project focused on the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. (Video: The Washington Post)

And now, at the nation’s most significant moment of racial reckoning since the 1960s, it’s become one of the hottest culture-war battlefields, where the combatants include turf-guarding academics, political ideologues angling for an election-year advantage — and the fearlessly spiky journalism superstar who willed the entire thing into existence.

All of this can make it easy to forget what the 1619 Project was — basically, a collection of smart, provocative magazine articles about the ways slavery shaped our nation. And by the time Hannah-Jones found her work under near-daily attack from brand-name intellectuals, the president of the United States and, as of last week, even the Times’s own opinion section, it was already more than a year old.

In December 2018, Hannah-Jones was rushing to finish a book project before the end of a temporary leave from the Times — but another deadline kept nagging at her.

She had been thinking about August 1619 ever since discovering the date in high school, on page 29 of Lerone Bennett’s “Before the Mayflower.” That was when the White Lion merchant ship brought more than 20 enslaved Africans to the shores of Virginia — a rarely noted milestone that probably marked the beginning of chattel slavery in the mainland English colonies.

Now the 400th anniversary loomed. “And I was wondering, what I should do with that?” Hannah-Jones said in a recent interview.

Back at work, she told her colleagues she wanted to mark the occasion with a special issue dedicated to slavery’s impact on modern society. “It didn’t take very much convincing,” said Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor in chief. Hannah-Jones convened a multidisciplinary group of scholars — Pulitzer winners and Ivy League stars among them — to steer her thinking and brainstorm topics.

Seven months later, the 1619 Project had expanded to include a broadsheet section of the newspaper, a podcast series and a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center to develop a free school curriculum. Hundreds of thousands of extra copies were shipped to libraries and museums. The issue’s 10 essays about the legacy of slavery, most penned by Black writers, ranged energetically from sugar consumption in America and modern-day traffic patterns in Atlanta to the U.S. failure to guarantee health care to its citizens; they were interspersed with poems and short stories by artistic luminaries such as Jesmyn Ward, Barry Jenkins and Lynn Nottage.

The night before publication, a standing-room audience crowded into a 378-seat auditorium at the Times. “What if I told you,” Hannah-Jones began, “that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as the year 1776?”

Silverstein was no less bold in his editor’s note. The barbaric system that would endure in the United States for 250 years after the White Lion’s arrival “is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that,” he wrote. “It is the country’s very origin.”

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The 1619 Project was an immediate sensation. Hannah-Jones, who would win a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay, needed an assistant to handle all the speaking requests. Silverstein recalls the rapturous crowds that would deliver a “laying on of hands” as she walked into their midst. Educators were thrilled by how their students connected with it, writing their own essays and creating art inspired by it.

“It resonated with many of our students that we are part of America, and instead of being ashamed of our history in this country, we can see our great contributions to it as African Americans,” said Janice Jackson, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools. “I was incredibly proud as a Black woman when I read that essay.”

Sean Wilentz remembers the Sunday morning in August when he walked down his driveway to pick up his Times. The Princeton historian was intrigued to see an issue of the magazine devoted to slavery; his most recent book, "No Property in Man," explored the antislavery instincts of the nation's founders. But then he started reading Hannah-Jones's essay.

“I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded,” he recalled recently, “because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.”

Long before “1619” was vibrating on the lips of President Trump and leading GOP lawmakers, objections were brewing among serious liberal academics. Hannah-Jones’s 10,000-word essay opened with her father’s roots in a Mississippi sharecropping family before blossoming into a panoramic take on the nation’s history. In the passage that so enraged Wilentz, she asserted 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” at a time when “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.”

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Wilentz was impressed by some of the 1619 Project’s essays, but in November, he critiqued Hannah-Jones’s piece in a public speech. And he contacted other prominent academics, whose complaints about the project were chronicled by the World Socialist Web Site. Eventually, four agreed to join Wilentz in writing a letter to the Times, criticizing the project’s “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

It didn’t go over so well.

“We perceived it right away to be an attack on the project,” said Silverstein. He questioned why they didn’t just contact him or Hannah-Jones directly to offer thoughts on how to “strengthen this historical analysis” as he said other readers had.

Wilentz, in turn, was stunned by Silverstein’s response letter, which was published alongside the scholars’ in December and was longer than their own — a major tell, in his view, that the Times knew it had gotten something very wrong even while it appeared to dismiss the complaint and avoided addressing many of its points. “Holy smokes,” he thought. “This is war!”

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

Wilentz, who is White, had not succeeded in getting any Black historians to sign on to his letter. But some shared his concerns. Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern who has written extensively about colonial slavery, was contacted in 2019 by a Times fact-checker asking if preserving slavery was a cause of the Revolutionary War. “Immediately, I was like, no, no, that doesn’t sound right,” Harris recalled. She thought the issue was settled — until she was a guest on a radio show with Hannah-Jones and heard the journalist assert that the colonists launched the revolution to preserve slavery. Taken aback, she was unready to argue but retreated to her car nearly in tears: A fan of the 1619 Project’s mission, she knew the claim could be consequential. “Given how high-profile this was, if this was really wrong, it was —” she paused, punctuating each word. “Really. Going. To. Be. Wrong.”

Wilentz pressed his case, publishing a 5,000-word essay in the Atlantic in January detailing the errors he saw in Hannah-Jones’s take on the revolution as well as her description of Abraham Lincoln as hesitant about emancipation. Harris took a different tack: Her March essay for Politico noted those points but also took a shot at the Wilentz letter-signers, arguing that their brand of scholarship had for too long overlooked the role of race and slavery in American history — a lapse for which the 1619 Project was compensating.

None of this discussion eluded the Pulitzer judges. Historian Steven Hahn, who served as the board’s co-chair, told The Post he supported the main thrust of Hannah-Jones’s essay — that Black people have been at the forefront of fighting for true political democracy — but had reservations about how she put together her argument, particularly the passage about the Revolutionary War. He laid out his concerns to his fellow board members. The majority still voted to give her the prize.

“Any serious historian would have questions about some of the claims and how they were made,” Hahn said. He was “appalled,” though, by the Wilentz letter: “It was pedantic — a big-shot historian saying ‘Who the hell are you?’ ”

Both Wilentz and Harris feared that this very public discussion had opened the door to a backlash. Wilentz said he warned Silverstein about this when they met for lunch in January to discuss their differences — that Republicans would run against the 1619 Project in the fall election.

Silverstein laughed it off. But within weeks, an attorney for the president was referencing the 1619 Project to attack House Democrats’ rationale for impeachment.

When she joined the New York Times in 2015 after working for Pro Publica and newspapers in Raleigh and Portland, Ore., Nikole Hannah-Jones was skeptical that she would fit in. Her hair is dyed firetruck red, her nails are long and acrylic, and she frequently wears a necklace that spells "Black girl magic" in script.

“This has been a conscious choice my entire career,” she explained. “I was not going to try to adapt my sense of style to mainstream expectations.”

In fact, the Times has embraced her, and she is considered by colleagues and rivals to have influence beyond her title. In 2017, she received a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work chronicling the persistence of racial segregation. “I’ve teased her that the New York Times has many people who think they are geniuses,” said Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, but “she’s the only person who has been officially declared one.”

She was raised in Iowa by a Black father and White mother, a dynamic that inspired her to cover race as a journalist. When her maternal grandparents learned their daughter was dating a Black man, “they initially disowned her, and did not re-own her until my older sister was born,” she said. “They loved us very deeply. But they were also prejudiced against other Black people who were not related to them.” Her choice, she realized, was to identify as mixed-race or Black. “Your mom is White, and I’m Black, but you’re Black,” her father told her. “Our country is going to treat you as Black and that’s who you are.” She embraced the identity, she says: “Why would I want to lay claim to people who wouldn’t lay claim to me?”

At the Times, she emerged as a prolific tweeter who has amassed nearly half a million followers, in part by sparring gleefully with critics. When the New York Post blasted protesters for toppling statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as well as Confederate generals, it used the headline “Call them the 1619 riots” — and Hannah-Jones tweeted, “It would be an honor. Thank you.” Her response spurred a half-dozen articles by conservative critics expressing outrage. This past summer, she retweeted a wild conspiracy theory suggesting that a spate of urban fireworks was part of a plot to destabilize the Black Lives Matter movement. She later deleted her tweet and called it irresponsible.

Baquet noted that her magazine role allows her to express “more opinions and have more edge” than most reporters. Yet he has counseled her to draw some lines and pick her battles on social media.

“Dean has never told me I cannot be on Twitter, but he has suggested that maybe I need to chill,” Hannah-Jones said. “I know that sometimes what I have tweeted has hurt the work I am trying to do.”

After six months of defending the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones and Silverstein received an email that convinced them that they had a problem.

Other scholars had weighed in since Wilentz — notably a group of Civil War historians who echoed his concerns about the description of Lincoln’s views and disputed another essay’s linkage of slavery with capitalism. Silverstein responded with a point-by-point dismissal. But the letter on Feb. 19 was from Danielle Allen, a prominent African American classicist and political theorist at Harvard, who also quarreled with the slavery-loving-colonists-spurred-to-war trope.

“If it instead said, ‘some colonists’ or ‘one of the primary reasons motivating influential factions among the colonists’ it would be correct,” she wrote. “But as it stands the sentence is false.” Allen — a former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board and a contributor to The Washington Post opinion page — warned that while she was now sharing her criticism privately, she might feel compelled to go public.

On March 11, the Times ran a “clarification” — a journalism term of art considered less grave than a correction — and added two words to the story specifying that slavery was a motivator for “some of” the colonists.

Hannah-Jones still sees no problem with her original text. She says she never intended to suggest that “every single colonist” was driven to preserve slavery. But “it became clear that if we didn’t clarify it in some way, it was going to dog us for eternity.”

But a clarification would hardly settle the controversy.

A conservative group called the National Association of Scholars had announced a “1620 Project” to highlight the contributions of the pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth Bay that year. And as the racial-justice protests of the summer renewed interest in the Times project — and the Pulitzer Center (no relation to the prizes) announced that 3,500 classrooms across the country were using its curriculum — it landed on the radar of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

A rising-star conservative, Cotton had tangled with the Times earlier in the summer when his op-ed calling on the military to quell what he called “rioters” and “criminal elements” attached to the summer’s street protests triggered a mass uprising of Times staffers. (“As a Black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.) The opinions editor resigned amid the furor, and Cotton’s jabs at the paper helped his campaign raise $1.3 million.

In July, Cotton proposed a bill to bar federal funds from schools that used the 1619 curriculum — “a radical work of historical revisionism aiming to indoctrinate our kids to hate America,” he called it. “The entire premise” of the Times project, he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “is that America is at root a systematically racist country to the core and irredeemable.”

In that interview, though, Cotton seemed to condone the Founding Fathers’ view of slavery as “the necessary evil upon which the union was built,” setting off a day-long news cycle in which he insisted his words were taken out of context and was pilloried by Twitter critics, including, yes, Hannah-Jones.

And then, a couple weeks ago, Hannah-Jones deleted almost her entire Twitter feed.

The 1619 Project was no longer just a team of journalists’ attempt to grapple with uncomfortable history. By the time Trump had attacked it, it had become a historic controversy in its own right, subject to scholarly dispute and debate and small-bore analysis.

It didn’t help matters much when it began to appear that the Times was backing away from some of the project’s bolder claims.

It started when Hannah-Jones took to Twitter to scold conservatives for misrepresenting the 1619 Project — which, she insisted “does not argue that 1619 is our true founding.”

But . . . hadn’t she claimed exactly that?

A writer for the Atlantic launched a massive Twitter thread noting all the times when Hannah-Jones had said, in essence, that 1619 was the nation’s true founding. That’s what prompted her social media self-purge, she told The Post, so her tweets could not be “weaponized.” Meanwhile, the libertarian journal Quillette noticed that the Times had removed a phrase from the 1619 Project website describing the date as “our true founding.” But no clarification was issued, leading critics to suggest the Times was trying to wipe clean its history without owning up to its mistakes.

Silverstein explained that the altered words were from display text penned by a digital editor that they were “continually having to write and revise” for different platforms “to hone how we are rhetorically describing the project.”

He also acknowledged amending some of the prose in his own editor’s note: It had not initially appeared online, he said, and when they added it to the site in December, “we made a few small changes to improve it” — not to backpedal, but to thin out rhetoric that seemed in hindsight like “too much flourish.” The paper’s standards department agreed that no acknowledgment of the changes was necessary.

Hannah-Jones, meanwhile, protested that critics were taking her own flourishes too literally — why could she not speak metaphorically of 1619, in the same way that Barack Obama had eulogized John Lewis, the late congressman, as a “founding father”?

“Those who’ve wanted to act as if tweets/discussions about the project hold more weight than the actual words of the project cannot be taken in good faith,” she tweeted. “Those who point to edits of digital blurbs but ignore the unchanged text of the actual project cannot be taken in good faith.”

Last week, the National Association of Scholars doubled down by calling on the Pulitzer board to revoke Hannah-Jones’s prize, taking particular aim at “surreptitious efforts” to alter it post-publication. Then on Friday evening came the most stunning slam of all:

“For all its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize . . .” wrote the columnist Bret Stephens, “the 1619 Project has failed.”

What made this attack different? Stephens is a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times opinion section, where he published the piece.

He defended the project against critics who claimed it rejected American values. But he suggested its small errors had accumulated via the authors’ “monocausality” — an insistence on seeing everything through the lens of slavery. And he questioned Hannah-Jones’s elevation of 1619 even as a metaphor.

“1776 isn’t just our nation’s ‘official’ founding,” Stephens wrote. “It is our symbolic one, too. The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation. It’s 244 years of effort by Americans — sometimes halting, but often heroic — to live up to our greatest ideal.”

Times leadership took pains to praise the 1619 Project this weekend. They maintained that Stephens’s criticism represented not an institutional scolding of the project but commitment to thoughtful debate. “The Times’s openness to hear and tolerate criticism is the clearest sign in its confidence in the work,” acting opinions editor Kathleen Kingsbury said.

Hannah-Jones, though, was livid, and let Kingsbury and Stephens know it in emails ahead of publication. On the day the NAS called for the revocation of her Pulitzer, she tweeted that efforts to discredit her work “put me in a long tradition of [Black women] who failed to know their places.” She changed her Twitter bio to “slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress” — a tribute to the trailblazing journalist Ida B. Wells, whom the Times slurred with those same words in 1894.

On Tuesday morning, Baquet put out a public statement welcoming the opinion team’s right to challenge the newsroom’s work but pushed back on Stephens’s criticism of the project’s journalistic standards. “The project fell fully within our standards as a news organization,” he wrote. “In fact, 1619 — and especially the work of Nikole — fill me with pride.”

Hannah-Jones has fiercely defended the 1619 Project. But today, she acknowledges that for all the experts she consulted, she should have sat down with additional scholars with particular focus on colonial history, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, to better reflect the contention in the field.

“I should have been more careful with how I wrote that” passage about the revolution, she says, “because I don’t think that any other fact would have given people the fodder that this has, and I am tortured by it. I’m absolutely tortured by it.”

2 p.m.: This story has been updated.