Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her overview of the “1619 Project” that she shepherded about the lasting impact of slavery on the U.S.
It’s offered as free curriculum for classrooms, with a timeline tracing the history of Blacks in American since the first Africans were brought here in 1619. Chicago, Washington and Buffalo schools will use it.
The groundbreaking initiative has its critics.
Some historians questioned three contentious points: A primary reason colonists declared independence was “to protect the institution of slavery,” Abraham Lincoln wasn’t committed to equality, and Blacks have “for the most part ... fought alone” for freedom.
Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, made it an issue.
He’d prohibit federal funds for schools using the curriculum, calling it “factually, historically flawed … that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable.”
He added, “As the Founding Fathers said, (slavery) was the necessary evil upon which the union was built. The union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
History shouldn’t sugarcoat a “necessary evil.”
Imagine telling Black children, Hannah-Jones tweeted, that “buying and selling of their ancestors, the rape, torture, and forced labor of their ancestors for PROFIT, was just a ‘necessary evil’ for the creation of the ‘noblest’ country the world has ever seen.”
She called history texts “highly politicized,” downplaying slavery. The South lost the Civil War, but prevailed in textbooks.
United Daughters of the Confederacy historian Mildred Lewis Rutherford long ago provided the formula: “Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves. Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust.”
Virginia “offered a better life for the Negroes than did Africa. In his new home, the Negro was far away from the spears and war clubs of enemy tribes.”
In Alabama, “A jail sentence or the execution of a slave was considered to be more of a punishment for the master than for the slave, because the slave was such valuable property.”
In Texas, “While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law) there were also kind and generous owners.”
Textbooks whitewash that the Alamo defenders died fighting Mexico’s “oppressive” slavery ban and omit the 1921 Tulsa massacre that killed 300 Blacks, which was news to President Donald Trump.
The roles Blacks played building the nation are relegated to an afterthought.
The “indentured servants” (later slaves) brought to Virginia in 1619 had knowledge of raising rice that saved the destitute South, which then cultivated human misery with labor-intensive crops like tobacco, sugar cane and cotton.
When Washington, D.C., was designated as the nation’s capital, European labor couldn’t be recruited. Blacks — slaves and free men — built the White House, Capitol and government buildings.
Still, Hannah-Jones’ contention that fear of Britain freeing slaves helped prompt the Revolution is debatable.
Both the Revolution and the abolition movement were percolating in the North before the 1775 Dunsmore Proclamation in Virginia offered freedom to any slave joining the British militia.
Historian Gordon Wood wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”
But compromises at the Constitutional Convention did help the less-populous South politically, making its 700,000 slaves “three-fifths” of a person when weighing Electoral College representation. Ten of the first 12 presidents were slaveholders.
In return, the Constitution prohibited importing slaves by 1808, which proved meaningless. By the Civil War, the South had 4 million slaves.
Lincoln’s commitment to racial equality was fraught with contradictions. He did place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction,” leading to the Civil War after the Founding Fathers kicked that can down the road.
Yet Lincoln didn’t issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, freeing slaves in states not under Union control but in not border states. More than 100,000 Blacks joined the Union to help tip a stalemate.
Four months earlier — convinced the races couldn’t co-exist — Lincoln got Congress to finance shipping Blacks to another country.
Hannah-Jones contends Blacks “for the most part ... fought alone” while struggling for freedom. That slights the 360,222 Union soldiers — overwhelmingly white — who died in the Civil War, abolitionists, and civil rights movement participants.
Which isn’t to deny that the quest for a seat at the table hasn’t been lonely.
Part of Hannah-Jones’ essay concerns her family fleeing violence and lack of opportunity in Mississippi only to encounter segregation and few opportunities in Waterloo. That should be a catalyst for a local conversation.
The “1619 Project” does make uncomfortable assertions worthy of discussion by students and historians. But it’s long overdue. Weigh the evidence and let the facts speak for themselves.
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