1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at the University of Lynchburg. Photo by Joe Stinnett.

LYNCHBURG — The 1619 Project, created by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and published by the New York Times in 2019, has inspired people across America to learn more about the central role of Blacks and enslaved people in the country’s history. It includes work by multiple writers in addition to Hannah-Jones, who also wrote the main essay, and she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020. By then, the Pulitzer Center had become an educational partner of the project, and thousands of students across the country were using its curriculum resources — reading guides, lesson plans, and activities. The New York Times and the Pulitzer Center sent copies of the initial presentation to schools and colleges across the country, and school systems in Buffalo, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Winston-Salem, and Wilmington, Del. “adopted the project on a broad scale,” according to the Pulitzer Center. As of earlier this month, a book-length expansion of the project had been on the New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks.

The project also triggered a furious backlash from many Republican politicians and officials including former President Donald Trump who called for teaching about it to be “defunded,” and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who brought it up this week while questioning Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson because she had mentioned it in a speech about the achievements of Black women. 

Hannah-Jones herself spoke Thursday night at the University of Lynchburg on “Truth, History, and The 1619 Project.” She confronted the criticism of her work head-on and said it constituted an attack on the teaching of history itself, something one expect in an authoritarian country but not the United States: “Could we be so fragile that a work of journalism could destroy our country?” A slide show that accompanied the speech noted that efforts had been made in 36 states to ban teaching about race and racism. These efforts are often accompanied by attempts to ban the 1619 Project itself and other books about race. “Healthy democracies do not ban books,” Hannah-Jones said, “ … the war on history is a war on democracy.” But she also said that a majority of people in the country actually do support learning more about racism and the true history of the country. The challenge, she said, is how this majority of people who favor diversity and learning about the past will use its collective power. She suggested that the answer is, “I refuse,” words that showed up in stark black and white on an accompanying slide. Explaining, Hannah-Jones said, “We refuse to be the country of our past and will work together for our higher potential.”

Organizers said they had distributed 1,000 tickets for the speech, the packed audience at Turner Gym greeted Hannah-Jones with a standing ovation, and her remarks were frequently punctuated with applause. An invitation-only breakfast with Hannah-Jones was also planned for area educators, community leaders, and elected officials, and her talk was the annual Rosel Schewel Lecture in Education and Human Diversity. The late Rosel Schewel, a community leader, was a faculty member at UL from 1973 to 1992 and the lecture series was established by her late husband, Elliot Schewel, an influential state senator from Lynchburg. The Schewel family has long been among the top benefactors of education and community advancement in the region. Elliot and Rosel Schewel Hall, one of UL’s main buildings, is named for them. Rosel Schewel was the first woman to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. Current U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has said he considers Elliot Schewel a mentor. 

Many of the original 1619 Project’s subjects were Virginians, including not only Thomas Jefferson, who owned two slave plantations, Monticello near Charlottesville and Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, but also men like Gabriel Prosser of Richmond in 1800, and Nat Turner of Southhampton County in 1831, who planned slave rebellions and were executed along with their followers. A less well-known Virginian highlighted was Henry W. Adams, an 1846 colonel in the Virginia Militia and later a Confederate colonel. Adams, who lived near the Staunton River in southern Campbell County, started a slave patrol in nearby Pittsylvania County to round up any enslaved people engaged in “unlawful assemblies” or going from one plantation to another without a pass from a white master. Violators were to receive up to 20 lashes.

 A main theme of the 1619 Project is the achievements of Blacks despite enslavement and virulent racism, and the brief Adams item notes, “While slave patrols tried to enforce laws that limited the movement of the enslaved community, Black people still found ways around them.” An article about Jefferson notes he was the author of the Declaration of Independence which advocates the equality of men but doesn’t mention slavery in its final version, was a lifelong enslaver himself, and “speculated that Black people were inferior to white people.” The project then points out he was taken to task in 1791 by Benjamin Banneker of Baltimore, a free Black scientist, who wrote to Jefferson when he was Secretary of State, “urging him to correct his ‘narrow prejudices’ and to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us.” Banneker was also a mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor, and he sent Jefferson a manuscript of his almanac which was published the following year. Jefferson responded with a letter thanking Banneker and saying he welcomed “proofs such as you exhibit” that Blacks were the equal of whites.

The Banneker article, “A Powerful Letter” ends there, but the aftermath was an early example of how arguments involving race are often turned around by politicians. Banneker considered Jefferson’s response a positive one and both letters were published the following year in hopes of advancing the cause of anti-slavery, according to an explanation from the National Archives. But Jefferson’s political opponents soon began using his response to prove he was secretly an abolitionist who favored quick emancipation of the slaves. Actually, Jefferson freed few slaves during his lifetime and the remainder, including those at Poplar Forest, were sold to pay his massive debts after he died. Hannah-Jones, noting that many of the founding fathers from the South were enslavers, said in Lynchburg Thursday, “Thomas Jefferson was known as a planter, but he never actually planted anything, the slaves did,” one of her many comments that drew applause and friendly laughter. Because of the central role of Black Americans in this country, she and the 1619 Project assert that the year that actually marks the founding of America is 1619, not 1776.

The original version of the Jefferson-Banneker article noted that Banneker’s letter was sent to “President Thomas Jefferson,” although Jefferson didn’t become president until 1801. Critics of the 1619 Project were quick to seize on any mistakes no matter how insignificant to throw doubt on the entire project. Mainstream white historians also found fault with the original project, although most supported its overall thrust. Hannah-Jones wrote 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. ” She later said this wasn’t intended to mean “all colonists,” but the New York Times changed “the colonists” to “some of the colonists.” It spun up into an academic controversy, with some professors questioning her writing that Abraham Lincoln was “hesitant” about emancipation, according to The Washington Post. Hannah-Jones responded that many traditional academics have long overlooked race and slavery’s role in U.S. history. The Pulitzer Prize board considered both her work and her critics’ assertions and voted to give her the prize.

Jones didn’t talk about her personal history in Lynchburg, although she has written about it. The daughter of a bus driver and probation officer, she worked her way up as a newspaper reporter at newspapers in Raleigh, N.C., and Portland, Ore., after completing her master’s at the University of North Carolina. She was hired by the New York Times in 2015. But before that, “ …I scraped to secure internships at small papers like the High Point Enterprise. I got my first job covering schools for the Chapel Hill News. At age 27 … I was interning at the (Raleigh) News & Observer while working a second job as a mattress salesperson to make ends meet,” she wrote last year. “UNC took a woman with ambition but no practical journalism training and provided the foundation for all that I would become. … through the years, Carolina has been so good to me; inviting me to give the journalism school’s commencement address in 2017; honoring me with the Young Alumni Award that same year and the Distinguished Alumna Award in 2019; and last year, inducting me into the N.C. Media Hall of Fame.”

She won a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” in 2017. She has been named to multiple The Roots 100 lists of the most influential African Americans. In 2020, she was inducted into the Society of American Historians. In 2021, she was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine. She is one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Center for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina, which works to train reporters and editors of color and promote diversity as a way to improve journalism and good government. It is named for a Black investigative journalist and civil rights leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Before the 1619 Project, she may have been best known to the public for an episode of the podcast This American Life, “The Problem We All Live With,” about desegregation.

Last year, she turned down an offer of tenure at her beloved University of North Carolina after a turbulent process. She was invited to apply for an endowed chair in journalism at Chapel Hill. Her tenure application was supported by the faculty but pulled without explanation by the UNC Board of Trustees. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract by the university, with tenure to be considered at an unspecified later date, which she reluctantly signed. Then it all became public and the political appointees of the Board of Governors of the UNC System became involved, questioning whether she should be hired at all. Jones said Thursday that they didn’t like her work, and they didn’t like her politics. Months later, she was finally offered tenure which she turned down in favor of the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she is working to start the Center for Journalism and Democracy to train young reporters. She remains a correspondent for the New York Times Magazine.

Political critics like Cruz have declared that the 1619 Project itself promotes anti-white racism. Republicans often seize on both the project’s truths and its perceived shortcomings to turn it into a political cudgel, even bringing it up in the Trump impeachment trial, claiming the case stemmed from “a historical sleight of hand” and “revisionist hindsight.” Hannah-Jones said Thursday that the term “revisionism” is also used in authoritarian countries when someone tries to bring up the truth about the past.

Critics regard the 1619 Project the same way they do Critical Race Theory, a complicated academic concept that looks at the implicit and obvious impact of race across the legal and judicial realm. Hannah-Jones asked the audience Thursday night how many had heard of CRT before the recent controversies, and only a few had. It is not taught in public schools in Virginia, although Hannah-Jones said Thursday night she would be glad if it was. Regardless, parents revved up by social media and politicians are demanding that local schools ban the teaching of CRT. School boards around Virginia are often acquiescing while at the same time explaining that they aren’t teaching the actual theory in the first place, and the little-understood term has become a catch-all for any teaching about race or slavery. Hannah-Jones blamed this on an orchestrated campaign from the right to protect “whiteness,” noting that “CRT” was mentioned 1,900 times on Fox News over a three-month period.

In Virginia, attempts to educate children about racial equality and justice have been targeted by opponents who believe the 1619 Project and CRT are “political ideology.” Those opponents include Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, who ordered the Virginia Department of Education to revoke multiple policies and programs advancing the teaching of diversity and equity. Youngkin’s campaign cited a Virginia Beach school administrator who praised the 1619 Project on Twitter as one example of how CRT was infiltrating public schools. Balow, the former elected head of Wyoming’s public schools, has said she will work “to eliminate political ideology from the classroom.” Hannah-Jones told the Associated Press earlier this year that she indeed has an agenda, but not a political one: “The agenda is to force a reckoning with who we are as a country. The agenda is to take the story of Black Americans in slavery, from being an asterisk, to being marginal to being central to how we understand our country.”

Joe Stinnett

Joe Stinnett is retired editor of The News & Advance and The Roanoke Times. He is a member of the Cardinal News Journalism Advisory Committee. He lives in Lynchburg.