ⓘ The 1619 Project


ⓘ The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is an ongoing project developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. It is an interactive project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times, with contributions by the papers writers, including essays on the history of different aspects of contemporary American life which the authors believe have "roots in slavery and its aftermath." It also includes poems, short fiction, and a photo essay. Originally conceived of as a special issue for August 20, 2019, it was soon turned into a full-fledged project, including a special broadsheet section in the newspaper, live events, and a multi-episode podcast series.

The New York Times has said that the contributions were deeply researched, and arguments verified by a team of fact-checkers in consultation with historians. Civil War historians Gordon S. Wood, James M. McPherson, and Richard Carwardine are among many who have criticized the 1619 Project, stating that the project has put forward misleading and historically inaccurate claims.


1. Beginning of American slavery

The New York Times Magazine says the project addresses "the beginning of American slavery". American slavery began with slavery among Native Americans in the United States before Europeans arrived; slaves might or might not be adopted eventually, especially if enslaved as children; and the enslavement might or might not be hereditary. Native Americans also captured and enslaved some early European explorers and colonists, and were enslaved themselves by the colonists, starting in Spanish Florida in the 1500s under the encomienda system.

The first African slaves in what would become the present day United States of America arrived in 1526 with Lucas Vazquez de Ayllons establishment of San Miguel de Gualdape on the current Georgia or Carolina coast. They rebelled and lived with indigenous people, destroying the colony in less than 2 months. More African slaves arrived in Florida in 1539 with Hernando de Soto, and in the 1565 founding of St. Augustine, Florida. African slaves escaping to Spanish Florida were freed by royal proclamation in 1693 if the slaves were willing to convert to Catholicism, and it became a place of refuge for slaves fleeing Colonial America.

The first African slaves in Colonial America arrived in August of 1619. A ship carrying 20-30 people who had been enslaved by a joint African-Portuguese war on Ndongo in modern Angola, landed at Port Comfort in the colony of Virginia. These enslaved Africans had been part of a larger group heading to Mexico, and were taken to Virginia after their Portuguese slave ship was captured by English privateers. The 400th anniversary of their arrival has been commemorated in Virginia and through the Year of Return in Ghana.


1.1. Beginning of American slavery Institutional racism

The authors argue that the African-American citizens who make up 13% of the United States population face institutional racism and a disproportionate amount of socio-economic and political challenges in 2019.


2. History of the project

Based on a proposal by Hannah-Jones to have an issue of the magazine dedicated to re-examination of the legacy of slavery in America, at the anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves to Virginia, in order to challenge the notion that American history began in 1776, the initiative quickly grew into a full-fledged project. The project encompasses multiple issues of the magazine, accompanied by related materials on multiple other publications of the Times as well as a project curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, for use in schools. The project employed a panel of historians, and support from the Smithsonian, for fact-checking, research and development. The project was envisioned with the condition that almost all of the contributions would be from African-American contributors, deeming the perspective of black writers an essential element of the story to be told.


2.1. History of the project August 14 magazine issue

The first edition, published in The New York Times Magazine on August 14, published in 100 pages with ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction by an additional sixteen writers, included the following works:

The essays explore the details of modern American society, such as traffic jams and American affinity for sugar, and explore their connections to slavery and segregation. Matthew Desmonds essay explores the way in which slavery has shaped modern capitalism and workplace norms. Jamelle Bouies essay explores the parallels between pro-slavery politics and the modern right-wing politics. Bouie argues that America still has not let go of the assumption that some people inherently deserve more power than others.


2.2. History of the project Accompanying material and activities

The magazine issue was accompanied by a special section on the Sunday newspaper, in partnership with the Smithsonian, examining the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, written by Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes. Beginning on August 20, a multi-episode audio series titled "1619" was started, published by The Daily, the morning news podcast of the Times. The Sunday sports section had an essay that explored slaverys impact on professional sports in America, "Is Slaverys Legacy in the Power Dynamics of Sports?". The Times plans to take the project to schools, with the 1619 Project Curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center. Hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the magazine issue were printed for distribution to schools, museums and libraries.


3.1. Reception Accolades

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris praised the project, via a tweet. Alexandria Neason, analysing the project for the Columbia Journalism Review, said that slavery is commonly mischaracterized in American media and schools as a marginal event in American history that has little influence on the present day, and she lauded the efforts of the 1619 project to challenge this picture. Fortune magazine also published a positive review writing the project was "wide-reaching and collaborative, unflinching, and insightful" and a "dramatic and necessary corrective to the fundamental lie of the American origin story".

In a blog post for The Cato Institute, libertarian Jonathan Blanks states that, despite his reservations about historical inaccuracies in the 1619 issue, he expresses regret that "the 1619 Project is receiving over-the-top criticisms," and he describes The 1619 Project as "an important endeavor to fill the gaps in Americans understanding of the nations history."


3.2. Reception Critical response

The 1619 Project has been sharply criticized by leading American historians, most notably, historians of the American Revolution Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, and Civil War experts Richard Carwardine and James McPherson. McPherson stated in an interview that he was "disturbed" by the projects "unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history." McPherson continued, "slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement."

Wood told an interviewer, "I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldnt believe this." He continued, "I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since its going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways."

Both Woods and McPhersons remarks were published by the World Socialist Website, a left-wing, socialist website, which claims that the 1619 projects "aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal identities - i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race." The site has also published interviews on the project with historians Victoria Bynum and James Oakes, and promoted a lecture series critiquing the projects alleged "racialist falsification of American and world history."

Professor Oakes criticized Hannah-Joness assertion that "Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country." He stated, "These are really dangerous tropes. Theyre not only ahistorical, theyre actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. Its the same thing. Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. Were all in the same boat we were back then. And thats what original sin is. Its passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. Its always been here. Theres nothing we can do to get out of it. If its the DNA, theres nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?"

Historian Victoria Bynum, author of the historical book behind the film Free State of Jones, has also been critical of the project. She said, "regardless of how successful slaveholders were in inculcating the common people with racism, the idea that anyone that harbored racial prejudice was a priori historically responsible for slavery, appears to be a rhetorical device aimed at rendering racism timeless and immutable."

Historian Leslie M. Harris, who was consulted by the New York Times during development of the 1619 Project, spoke out about the misinformation used. She wrote in Politico that despite her warnings as to the historical inaccuracy of the idea that the 13 colonies went to war to protect slavery, that "Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway", she wrote.

The project has also received criticism from conservatives. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the project as "brainwashing" "propaganda", in a tweet, and called it "a lie" in a subsequent media appearance. Senator Ted Cruz has also equated it with propaganda. Conservative commentator Byron York, writing for the Washington Examiner, characterized the project as an attempt to reframe American history in accordance with the values of New York Times editors, as part of an alleged ongoing campaign by the paper to shift the narrative of the Trump presidency from the Trump–Russia affair toward race, in the re-election year. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson also criticized the "racial lenses" deployed in revisiting history. President Donald Trump, Senator Cruz and Newt Gingrich have echoed the opinions expressed by the conservative commentators. The August 18, 2019, edition of the Washington Examiner said, "The 1619 project has been panned by critics as an attempt to reduce the entirety of American history to a lesson on slavery and race."

A September 13, 2019 analysis in New York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan, formerly a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, critiqued the project as an important perspective that needed to be heard, but one presented in a biased way under the guise of objectivity. He declared this evidence of The New York Times shift from impartial reporting to activism.

In response to criticisms, Hannah-Jones has claimed that every part was deeply researched, and also analyzed by fact-checkers, in consultation with a panel of historians, verifying every argument. Nancy LeTourneau, writing in the Washington Monthly, argues that the conservatives feel threatened by the project because "it challenges the totalism on which their entire world view has been constructed. It is their mindset, which monopolizes imagination and stifles alternatives, that lays the groundwork for authoritarianism". Responding to a critical Letter to the Editor from five historians, New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein wrote: "Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it – an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book."

In February 2020, a rival project called 1776 was launched to counter The 1619 Project.


4. Correction in response to criticism

On March 11, 2020, Silverstein authored an "update" in the form of a "clarification" on The New York Times website, correcting part of Hannah-Jones essay to state "that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for some of the colonists", when the original version had suggested it was the main motivation of all colonists.