WATERLOO — Nikole Hannah-Jones, at the start of her 1619 Project book tour, was reunited on stage Tuesday with the teacher who first introduced her to the significance of that year.
West High School hosted its Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus and former Waterloo Community Schools’ educator the Rev. Ray Dial during a “homecoming” event attended by more than 700 people, according to the district. The two spent an hour in conversation with Akwi Nji, director of school and community relations.
Dial’s Black history class opened the young Hannah-Jones’ eyes to the contributions of African-Americans to this country, and she wanted to learn even more. She asked him for the books to do that.
“It was in Mr. Dial’s class that he first put a book in my hands that I never gave him back – I still have it – that had 1619 in it,” said Hannah-Jones, a 1994 graduate of West. The book, “Before the Mayflower,” noted a ship brought the first 20 enslaved Africans to Virginia that year.
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What she learned from Dial and his books spurred her on to major in African-American studies at Notre Dame University and become a journalist.
“The reason I wanted to have Mr. Dial with me is he demonstrates the power that teachers have to transform lives,” said Hannah-Jones. “He just stimulated my learning, my desire to learn the way no other teacher had.” She said he answered the “highest calling of educators” – to “open students’ minds, not to indoctrinate them.”
Two years ago she took the lead on the 1619 Project, whose publication in the New York Times Magazine marked the 400th anniversary of that first slave ship’s arrival. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her essay on the project, which aims to reframe United States’ history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative. Two Hannah-Jones’ books were just released that build on her work with the 1619 Project.
“I know this is not a place that people necessarily stop on their book tours,” she told the audience. But the author insisted to publisher Penguin Random House that an event needed to occur in her hometown.
“This is the place that shaped me,” said Hannah-Jones, now a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident. She’s had the word “Waterloo” tattooed on her wrist, a reminder of those beginnings.
The event was also sort of a homecoming for Dial, who now lives in Burlington. He first came to West in 1991 after working in other district schools. Following more than a decade in teaching and administrative roles at the school, he became co-principal of the former Logan Middle School. In 2004, he came back to West as an assistant principal and left in 2006 to become a full-time pastor.
“It is good to be back in this place, on this stage,” said Dial. When first arriving at West, he said, his administrative role was to “trouble shoot and fix stuff that people said was not broken.”
That sometimes led to clashes with the school administration or taking actions that didn’t strictly adhere to policies. In some cases, it was to smooth the way for Black students like Hannah-Jones, who lived in another part of the district but transferred into West. He kept her and others out of trouble when they led a walkout from classes and allowed an underground paper that she was involved with to be printed in the office.
“It’s hard to worry about the rules when you know what you’re doing is right,” said Dial.
Hannah-Jones said educators often made it clear to Black students who had transferred to West that it “was not our school.” Having someone like Dial who “had your back” and told them that they did belong, “it meant everything.”
The 1619 Project has been criticized and faced a backlash, including a failed attempt in the Legislature to ban use of the materials for classroom teaching in public schools. That was acknowledged and embraced Tuesday evening.
“It’s important to me to note Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work on the 1619 project is not without controversy,” Nji said early in the hour. “But we’re a district that doesn’t just talk about courageous conversations, we host them.”
That drew applause from the audience, which generally gave the native daughter a warm welcome. Mayor Quentin Hart got in on the positive vibes, as well, presenting her with an oversized key to the city.
Still, the author offered a defense for “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” one of the books being promoted on her tour. There’s also a children’s book she helped write, “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.”
“One of the critiques is that this is revisionist history,” said Hannah-Jones. “That’s what all history is. ... If we had all knowledge of history, there would be no need for historians.
“The work of revision is trying to get closer to the truth,” she added. “What I want to do is question and be skeptical of these narratives” that have been accepted as a historical truth.
She has powerful allies in getting out her message. The New York Times is developing an expansive portfolio of feature films, television series and other content based on the 1619 Project. The first product is a documentary series now being filmed that will debut on the Hulu streaming platform.
Hannah-Jones is also working to make an impact in her hometown through an after-school literacy program launched this fall. The 1619 Freedom School began serving fourth- and fifth-graders at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, a low-income Waterloo Schools’ elementary that is its most segregated building. The full program, serving about 30 academically struggling low-income students from across the district, opens in January at the downtown Masonic Temple building.
“I have to try as much as I can to use my platform and resources to help people to have the success that I’ve had,” she said, expressing a belief that those students are lacking resources not abilities.
“The work that I’m doing is not about making white people feel guilty,” she noted. “We have to own up to what happened and then we have to try and make it right.”