Who was Prince Hall?

Here is Danielle Allen at The New York Times:

Massachusetts abolished enslavement before the Treaty of Paris brought an end to the American Revolution, in 1783. The state constitution, adopted in 1780 and drafted by John Adams, follows the Declaration of Independence in proclaiming that all “men are born free and equal.” In this statement Adams followed not only the Declaration but also a 1764 pamphlet by the Boston lawyer James Otis, who theorized about and popularized the familiar idea of “no taxation without representation” and also unequivocally asserted human equality. “The Colonists,” he wrote, “are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.” In 1783, on the basis of the “free and equal” clause in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the state’s chief justice, William Cushing, ruled enslavement unconstitutional in a case that one Quock Walker had brought against his enslaver, Nathaniel Jennison.

Many of us who live in Massachusetts know the basic outlines of this story and the early role the state played in standing against enslavement. But told in this traditional way, the story leaves out another transformative figure: Prince Hall, a free African American and a contemporary of John Adams. From his formal acquisition of freedom, in 1770, until his death, in 1807, Hall helped forge an activist Black community in Boston while elevating the cause of abolition to new prominence. Hall was the first American to publicly use the language of the Declaration of Independence for a political purpose other than justifying war against Britain. In January 1777, just six months after the promulgation of the Declaration and nearly three years before Adams drafted the state constitution, Hall submitted a petition to the Massachusetts legislature (or General Court, as it is styled) requesting emancipation, invoking the resonant phrases and founding truths of the Declaration itself.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Ben Wright

Ben Wright is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Texas at Dallas. This interview is based on his new book, Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Bonds of Salvation?

BW: My life project—the question that wakes me up in the middle of the night and that I plan to address with all of my future work—is studying how Christianity inspired people of faith to confront, or sadly too-often perpetuate, white supremacy. Exploring the abolitionist movement was an obvious starting point.

This specific project began when I kept encountering white Christians who privately attacked slavery yet never took any organized antislavery action. Understanding this seeming hypocrisy led me the ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, and then tracking the development and consequences of these ideologies gave me my narrative.

Finally, I will admit that history is a conversation between the past and present, and I absolutely used the process of writing this book to work through some of the moral failings of the evangelical world in which I grew up. Those interrogations took on a different tenor after the 2016 election.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Bonds of Salvation?

BW: Bonds of Salvation is the story of how Protestant Christianity, and its ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, both inspired and limited the development of American abolitionism. Dreams of expanding salvation formed some of the most powerful forces in creating the American nation and then only a few decades later, tore the country apart.

JF: Why do we need to read Bonds of Salvation?

BW: Perhaps it’s Midwestern humility or enduring imposter syndrome, but I’m wincing at the word “need.” One could certainly have a happy and fulfilling life without reading my book.

But… I do think my book attempts to address some very important questions about Christianity and American history: What does the kingdom of God look like? How do our religious communities balance looking within and without, salvation and holiness, evangelism and discipleship? How do we balance our desires for unity and our seeking justice? And ultimately, to invoke Frederick Douglass, what is the difference between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ?

On a more specific note, Bonds of Salvation makes a few historiographical interventions. First, it challenges the distinction in antislavery studies between gradualism and immediatism and instead offers a framework of conversionism and purificationism. Second, it argues for the centrality of conversionist Christianity in creating denominational bodies that fostered and nearly destroyed the American nation. Third, it centers missionary debates in the debate over the American Colonization Society, the national organization that sought to solve the problem of slavery and expand salvation by resettling Black Americans in Liberia.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BW: I had many outstanding mentors. To name just a few: Diana Magnuson at Bethel University foregrounded historiographical change in her undergraduate classes. The realization that history was not the recounting of dry facts but rather an invitation to an evolving conversation ignited something in me. Randall Balmer, then at Columbia, rescued an overwhelmed and outgunned MA student, and made me believe that I was capable of doing meaningful work. John Boles at Rice set an example of diligent scholarship and generous collegiality. The best advice I ever received about wanting to become a historian was, “don’t do it.” Only after really understanding the difficulty of the work and the obstacles of a nearly impossible job market did I realize that I needed to at least try to find a career reading, writing, and teaching history.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: My next monograph will build on the work I’ve done on the colonization movement and delve more deeply into how British and American missionaries crafted visions for empire that led to colonization in West Africa.

I also stay pretty busy maintaining (and hopefully soon extending) my textbook project, The American Yawp. I’m really interested in both the intellectual implications and practical applications of the digital humanities. Joseph Locke (my American Yawp co-editor) and I have a piece that underwent an open review from the AHR about those issues (see ahropenreview.com). We hope to extend that analysis in some other works.

And in honor of this excellent blog’s founder, I’ll admit that, at least in my head, I’m frequently humming “Reason to Believe” and rewriting a series of essays on religion and Bruce Springsteen.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Anyone interested in buying Bonds of Salvation can use the promo code 04READHOME for 40% off from The Louisiana State University Press.

What should we make of Trump’s 1776 Commission Report? Part 4

Read previous installments in this series here.

Part Four of the 1776 Commission Report covers what it calls’ “Challenges to America’s Principles.”

Slavery is identified as one of these “challenges.” At this point in our series it is important to remember that the 1776 Commission was formed as a reaction to the 1619 Project, a series of New York Times essays that makes slavery central to the American founding. We have had a lot of things to say about the 1619 Project here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. You can read all our posts on the topic here.

Here is the 1776 Commission Report:

The most common charge levelled against the founders, and hence against our country itself, is that they were hypocrites who didn’t believe in their stated principles, and therefore the country they built rests on a lie. This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.

The statement then goes out of its way to take the founders off the hook for owning slaves. It fails to mention that the South’s wealth was generated by slave labor or that systemic racism permeated the South during the colonial era and early republic. The statement fails to mention that the failure of the founders to do anything to stop this institution allowed racism and white supremacy to gain a foothold in the United States. Over time these injustices became deeply embedded in American institutions and American culture. The Civil War ended slavery in America, but anyone who studies Reconstruction knows that the Union victory over the Confederacy did very little to rid the country of racism. None of this is acknowledged in the report. In fact, it skips from “slavery” to “progressivism” without saying anything about the failure of Reconstruction. (It does mention Reconstruction in the section on “Racism and Identity Politics”).

The founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others) may have freed their slaves or tried to stop slavery from spreading outside the South, but in 1776 and again in 1787 they made a decision to privilege national unity over ending this institution. In other words, they chose compromise over moral conviction. Some of the founders fought hard to keep slavery in the South. Others quietly sat by and let it happen. The 1776 Commission Report seems to subordinate the lives of millions of enslaved Africans to the project of nation-building, or what it calls “a question of practical politics.” Were these men products of their times? Of course they were. But I don’t believe this gets them off the hook. Let’s remember that there were anti-slavery voices in late 18th-century America. The founders just chose to ignore them. Let’s not pretend that future generations, even after the Civil War, had to deal with the consequences of this choice. In history class we call this contingency.

Some have argued that the founding ideals, such as the belief that “all men are created equal,” eventually led to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, the Northern victory in the Civil War, and the civil rights movement’s challenge to Jim Crow. (On Tuesday in my American Revolution course we are reading Gordon Wood’s famous “radicalism” argument). The 1776 Commission Report seems to be echoing this view when it notes that “the foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” This is true. And as we noted in an earlier post in this series, American reform movements drew heavily upon these founding ideals.

But the 1776 Commission Report fails to realize that on matters of race the damage was done well before the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. By allowing slavery to flourish for so long, the founders and their immediate descendants contributed immensely to the racism and racial divisions we see today. One cannot end slavery and expect that two centuries of injustice will just go away. One cannot end slavery and then expect the culture of racism that defined every day life in America prior to the 13th Amendment to just disappear. Racism was embedded in American culture for decades upon decades prior to the Civil War. It will thus take decades upon decades for Americans to rip it out.

As I have noted before at this blog, the 1619 Project has some historical problems. Its claims are too bold. But I am thankful to the project for at least calling our attention to the fact that the racial issues we face in the United States today are rooted in systemic injustices woven deeply into the fabric of American society and culture.

There is a lot more to say about this, but I think I will stop there for today. With the start of the new semester, I don’t think I will try to cover much more of the historical content in the 1776 Commission Report. Perhaps if the 1776 Commission Report gets some traction in the school boards of conservative states I will revisit it. But I do want to comment on the prescriptive calls for “national renewal” at the end of the document. Stay tuned.

A Confederate flag in the building built by slaves

Felicia Bell is a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In her recent piece at The Washington Post she reminds us about the people who labored to build the U.S. Capitol. Here is a taste of her piece, “Enslaved Black craftsman helped build the U.S. Capitol that a mob fueled by racist rhetoric stormed“:

I stood in my living room motionless and stunned Jan. 6 as I watched an attempted coup happening in real time. Raging insurrectionists fueled by racist rhetoric and conspiracy theories had besieged and forced their way into the U.S. Capitol, intent on disrupting and halting a fundamental democratic process: the peaceful transfer of power. Their perceived loss of privilege and political power sparked violence that would result in the deaths of six people, including two U.S. Capitol Police officers.

I’d begun that morning with joy when I learned of the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s historic win as the first Black senator from my home state of Georgia. However, upon hearing about the events taking place at the Capitol, all I could feel was dismay. This was not only an attack on democracy, but a violation of where democracy lives.

My joy gave way to disgust when I saw the unruly mob scaling the walls of the Capitol to implement their seditious act on Congress. My thoughts turned to the historical significance of the building and those who helped build it. The walls they were climbing, upon which they would unfurl their insurrectionist banners, were originally made of sandstone built by enslaved craftsmen.

Enslaved and free Black craftsmen were a critical labor force used by the U.S. government, as authorized by President George Washington, to build the Capitol. The commissioners of the District of Columbia were assigned by the executive branch to oversee the Capitol construction project. Although their records indicate the number of enslaved craftsmen fluctuated over years, it climbed into the hundreds: “We believe more than 800 mechanics and Labourers [sic] employed on public and private account in improving the City.”

Read the rest here.

Three new books on the underground railroad

Over at The New Republic historian Eric Herschthal reviews:

Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War; John Harris, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage; and Alice Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

South to Freedom does far more than establish numbers. It is primarily concerned with understanding why the U.S. failed to stop slavery’s expansion, why Mexico did, and using that knowledge to cast the coming of the Civil War in a new light. Baumgartner argues that Mexico’s anti-slavery policies led the South to try to conquer the nation, partly achieving that goal through the U.S.-Mexican War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. But the South miscalculated. It hoped to reestablish slavery in the territory it acquired from Mexico after the war (what became California, Utah, and the Southwest) but instead fueled an anti-slavery backlash. The Republican Party, established in 1854, refused to allow slavery to expand into Western territories, especially where it had already been abolished—including those seized from Mexico. In this way, Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republican Party, and the abolitionist war it ultimately fought, was partly an outgrowth of Mexican emancipation policies enacted decades earlier.

Read the entire piece here.

New free database: “Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade”

Here is Sydney Trent at The Washington Post:

Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade, a free, public clearinghouse that launched Tuesday with seven smaller, searchable databases, will for the first time allow anyone from academic historians to amateur family genealogists to search for individual enslaved people around the globe in one central online location.

It launches four centuries after the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of the English colony of Virginia in 1619. By then, the transatlantic slave trade was already more than a century old.

Directed by data scientists at Michigan State University and four principal investigators, including Williams at U-Md., the project debuted with information about 500,000 named enslaved people and their circumstances, collected by some of the world’s foremost historians of slavery. More records of enslaved people, ethnic groups, populations and places will be entered over time as partnerships are forged with academics, archives, museums and other repositories of information.

As it evolves, Enslaved.org, founded with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “will revolutionize our access to the past lives and experiences of our enslaved ancestors more dramatically and more definitively than any other research project,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and a partner in the project.

Read the entire piece here.

Department of Interior may fund a historic site at Natchez, Mississippi slave market

Here is the Associated Press:

A federal agency could put money toward eventual development of a historical site that was once one of the largest slave markets in the United States.

Enslaved people were sold from 1833 to 1863 at the Forks of the Road site in Natchez, Mississippi. The site currently has a sign and a small monument made of concrete and shackles. Officials have been working since 2005 on proposals to turn it into a more detailed memorial.

“Of course, Black history is American history. But more than that, this is human history,” said Kathleen Bond, superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park. “We all understand the humanity of the different experiences people have had in this country. I think the healthiest thing is for us to be able to tell the truth and then work together.”

The U.S. Department of Interior has included $400,000 for Forks of the Road in a priority list of recommended spending from the federal Land Water Conservation Fund for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Natchez Democrat reported. The federal budget has not been finalized.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with John Oldfield

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Ties that Bind?

JO: I wrote The Ties that Bind in an attempt to challenge more orthodox histories that tend to place antislavery within narrow national contexts, whether American exceptionalism, in the case of the USA, or Britain’s history of humanitarian interventionism. Antislavery, I argue, should be seen as an international movement that rested on dense networks that brought together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists, particularly so-called “second wave” reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, relied heavily on British antecedents and borrowed many of their ideas, whether it was their use of “agents” or antislavery lecturers, the pledging of “parliamentary” candidates or the importance of grass-roots organization. But these influences also flowed the other way and part of my intention in The Ties that Bind was to explore how figures like Garrison influenced British activists, George Thompson being an obvious case in point. There were always limits to international co-operation, perhaps most evident in British reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For some British reformers, American abolitionism would always seem too sensationalist, too “popular” and even potentially dangerous. This is what Garrison was getting at when he said that British abolitionists “walked in silver slippers.” Antislavery in Britain, he went on, had “never been tried in the fiery furnace, nor compelled to encounter a single storm of persecution, and therefore is no more a test of English character, than is the opposition of Americans to a monarchical form of government.” So, while there were obvious affinities here, there were also important differences. Finally, I wanted to explore the related question of opinion-building, the processes whereby activists turned an idea (that slavery was wrong) into a social movement. This, again, is a transatlantic story but one not without its stresses and strains, as the British reaction to things such as antislavery songs and antislavery performers makes abundantly clear.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ties that Bind?

JO: Simply put, The Ties that Bind argues that we should see antislavery as an international movement based on close ties that bound together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it stresses the importance of opinion-building techniques and, above all, the role of personality in shaping the abolitionist world of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ties that Bind?

JO: I think two points are relevant here. The Ties that Bind, like my previous books, makes the case for seeing antislavery as an international movement. Abolitionists, from Granville Sharp to William Lloyd Garrison, saw themselves as “citizens of the universe” and that outlook dictated their political outlooks, as well as the policy choices they made. American abolitionists learned a great deal from their British counterparts and Garrison, in particular, played on these Atlantic affinities; hence his preoccupation with celebrating 1 August, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Of course, American abolitionism was always more than a pale imitation of British antislavery but it is instructive, I think, to stress the importance of these international “connections.” My second point leads on from the first. One of the things I was keen to do in The Ties that Bind was to emphasize the importance of antislavery for activists today and for broader histories of humanitarianism. I think there are a number of issues at play here. One is the importance of grass-roots organization. On both sides of the Atlantic, abolitionists created complex networks that linked center to periphery, being careful at the same time to give rank-and-file members a chance to air their views. This mix between guidance and independence, I would argue, kept the movement fresh and relevant, and it is a model that has been adopted successfully elsewhere, notably in US campaigns around gun rights, tobacco control and drunk-driving reduction. Another crucial factor, which again has implications for activists today, was the willingness of abolitionists (not all of them, admittedly) to engage with electoral politics. Historians may question the effectiveness of the Liberty Party, to take an obvious example, but there is little doubt in my mind that such initiatives helped to divorce the federal government from the idea of slavery. Finally, as I have already said, antislavery was an international movement, based on close ties that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks. Indeed, cosmopolitanism was an important dynamic within nineteenth-century abolitionism, evident in common political attitudes and assumptions that flowed from east to west and from west to east. In this sense, antislavery was never a parochial British or American affair, any more than the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were narrow parochial affairs.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JO: I was an undergraduate in the UK during the 1970s, a decade that seemed to be dominated by the USA, not always for the right reasons. Whether it was the Vietnam War or the unfolding drama surrounding the Watergate break-in, it was difficult not to be affected by these events in some way, inside or outside the classroom. The 1970s also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of revisionist studies of US slavery, from John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) to Eugene Genovese’s magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Collectively, these books not only seemed to speak to the contemporary situation in the USA but also to break new ground, not least in their use of sources (slave narratives, for instance) and their openness to other disciplinary approaches. As a result, I found myself drawn to courses on US history and to anything that dealt with the American South or slavery, race, and identity. I guess this was the start of my journey towards becoming an American historian. After graduating, I went on to graduate school, choosing to write my PhD thesis on the nineteenth-century black leader, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Over the past forty years, my research interests have broadened and today I would consider myself as much a historian of the Atlantic World, as an American historian. I have also developed a lifelong interest in the history of antislavery, both at a national and international level. But I have always taught US history and in many ways The Ties that Bind marks a return to many of the themes that first excited me as an undergraduate.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Good question! I am currently co-editing a volume on European colonial heritage, which should appear in the second half of 2021. Beyond that, I want to build on the work I did in The Ties that Bind on William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, using it as a template to explore other transatlantic friendships that centered on reform. Then there is the ongoing debate here in the UK about the history and legacy of slavery, which is bound to quicken in pace as we inch ever closer to 2033 and the bicentenary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Now more than ever there is a need for an “integrated” history of British antislavery, which not only commemorates the achievements of people like William Wilberforce but also recognizes Britain’s deep and tragic involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Libra Hilde

Libra Hilde is Professor of History at San Jose State University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask my students to write a paper comparing the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. The idea for Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty emerged from repeatedly confronting the disjuncture between these two authors’ experiences. Despite being quite young when her enslaved father passed away, Jacobs attributed her sense of humanity and will to achieve liberty to his influence. Douglass could only guess at the identity of an unknown white father who never acknowledged or took responsibility for his enslaved child. I found this contrast fascinating and set out to explore how enslaved people conceived of and negotiated paternal duty within the constraints of slavery and Jim Crow.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Denied the ability to directly provide for and protect loved ones, enslaved men often found alternative ways to care for and support their children, exerting their influence through advice, ideas, and religious counsel, immaterial means over which slaveholders had less control. This book counters persistent stereotypes of African American families and absent, irresponsible Black fathers, showing that because enslaved and then freed men did not have access to open patriarchal authority, much of their care-taking behavior has remained hidden.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty?

LH: Recent events and the racial reckoning we face in this country have underscored the destructive impact of misconceptions about Black masculinity and the African American family that are an ongoing legacy of slavery. In order to appreciate the variability and adaptability of the enslaved family, we need to look beyond household structure and normative definitions of family and fatherhood and instead look at how kin units actually functioned. It is also important to understand the public/private and hierarchical nature of Southern masculinity and how such assumptions continue to shape American attitudes. While only white men in the Old South had access to public definitions and the display of manhood, enslaved men were frequently allowed to exhibit attributes of masculinity within the confines of the plantation, especially when this arrangement profited the slaveholder. Enslaved men faced painful, intractable dilemmas and yet many endeavored to uphold the vision of paternal honor idealized by African American communities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LH: I started college as a mechanical engineering major with the unrealistic goal of becoming a mission payload specialist and astronaut. In my first semester, I took an 800-person American History survey course with the late Leon F Litwack, and it changed my life. I switched my major to history and never looked back. In graduate school, I narrowed my focus to the Civil War era based on interest and a desire to work with the late William E. Gienapp. Great teachers and mentors have provided inspiration at every stage of my career development.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: My next project examines the consequences of Civil War mortality, comparing Southern counties with relatively light losses to those with heavy losses. The South lost a significant percentage of its white male population between the ages of 14 and 55, and local organization of regiments meant that deaths were unevenly spread across the landscape. I am using a combination of quantitative data and qualitative sources to explore the effects of wartime mortality on household formation, marriage patterns, local politics, regional migration, gender roles, and post-war race relations, with a particular focus on widows.

JF: Thanks, Libra!

Hamilton and slavery at the Schuyler Mansion


Here is Indiana Nash’s piece at The Daily Gazette, a newspaper that covers the Albany region:

The Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site is working to parse fact from fiction when it comes to Alexander Hamilton’s role as an enslaver.

While some historians have made the case that Hamilton was an abolitionist or a reluctant slave owner, an article from the Schuyler Mansion claims otherwise.

“ . . . Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” writes Jessie Serfilippi in a report titled “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver.”

During the past few years, the historical interpreter has been poring over ledgers and correspondence of Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, in an effort to gain a clearer picture of Hamilton’s involvement with slavery.

“In the 21st century, Alexander Hamilton is almost universally depicted as an abolitionist. From Ron Chernow’s ‘Hamilton’ to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ there is little room in modern discourse for questioning the founder’s thoughts and feelings on slavery,” writes Serfilippi.

She goes on to explore Hamilton’s relationship with the slave trade from his childhood to his adulthood. Hamilton grew up in a home with several enslaved people, and early on in his career he worked as a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, a St. Croix trading post that imported and sold slaves on several occasions, according to Serfilippi.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Some of the descendants of James Monroe’s slaves do not want the former president’s statue removed from the College of William & Mary

The statue of Monroe on William & Mary’s campus was erected “a few years ago.” Monroe attended the William & Mary before he dropped out in 1776 to join the Continental Army.

Here is a taste of Wilford Kale’s article at The Virginia Gazette:

Cousins Jennifer L. Stacy and George R. Monroe Jr. do not want the College of William & Mary to remove President James Monroe’s name from a residence hall, nor would they support the removal of the new statue of the fourth president of the United States placed on campus a few years ago.

The family members are descendants of enslaved persons who labored for Monroe more than two centuries ago at Highland — his Albemarle County plantation now owned, maintained and interpreted by William & Mary.

Stacy and Monroe also are members of the Council of Descendant Advisors, working to tell a broader story at Monroe’s homesite.

Recently, some students and faculty at William & Mary have raised the question as to whether the names on certain buildings on campus are appropriate in light of questions regarding social and racial justice.

“Removing (Monroe’s) statue and name does a disservice,” Stacy explained. “It is not something I support, because that’s taking one part of a man’s life and ignoring the contributions he made to our country. He was a Founding Father.”

Read the rest here.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary addresses its racist past; keeps buildings named after slaveholders

Here is Adelle Banks at Religion News Service:

The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention decided Monday (Oct. 12)  to maintain the names of campus buildings named for school founders who had connections to slavery. At the same meeting, the trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary created a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund for African American students.

“We’re not going to erase our history in any respect or leave our history unaddressed,” said the school’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., in a statement. “We are seeking to respond to the moral and theological burden of history by being a far more faithful institution in the present and in the future than we’ve been in the past and in this central respect we acknowledge a special debt to African American Christians.”

Starting in the 2022-23 academic year, the school will earmark $1 million of restricted and endowed funds for the Garland Offutt Scholars Program to honor the first African American full graduate and assist Black students at the seminary. It plans to contribute an additional $1 million every three years until a $5 million goal is reached.

The seminary trustees also declared vacant the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology, which was held by Mohler. Brown, governor of Georgia during the Civil War, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly Black convict-lease laborers and gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped save it from financial collapse.

Read the entire piece here.

A short history of the 1619 Project

Over at The Washington Post, Sarah Ellison chronicles the ways The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has influenced American politics in 2020. Here is a taste:

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 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!”

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.”

Read the entire piece here. Read all our posts on the 1619 Project here.

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Advocates for Freedom?

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

JF: Why do we need to read Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

The Author’s Corner with Louis DeCaro, Jr.

Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.

JF: When did you decide to become an American historian?

LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.

JF: What is your next project?

LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.

JF: Thanks, Louis!

How Abraham Lincoln challenged the power of the Supreme Court

How did Abraham Lincoln challenged a Supreme Court dominated by pro-slavery ideologues? Princeton historian Matthew Karp answers this question in his latest piece at Jacobin. Here is a taste:

Across the late 1850s, Lincoln argued that “the American people,” not the Supreme Court, were the true arbiters of the Constitution, and that the only way to defeat the proslavery judiciary was through mass political struggle. And after Lincoln and Hamlin were elected in 1860, the new president’s inaugural address articulated this view in perhaps the strongest language he ever used:

[I]f the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made . . . the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

Once in power, Lincoln and congressional Republicans “reorganized” the federal judiciary and “packed” the court, adding an additional justice in 1863. More fundamentally, though, they simply ignored the proslavery precedents established in the 1850s. In June 1862, for instance, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a bill banning slavery from the federal territories — a direct violation of the majority ruling in Dred Scott. The court meekly acquiesced, recognizing that its political power was long since broken.

As the legal historian Charles Warren later lamented, Republicans’ popular assault on the court crippled the institution for more than a decade: “During neither the Civil War nor the period of Reconstruction,” Warren wrote, “did the Supreme Court play anything like its due role of supervision, with the result that during one period the military powers of the President underwent undue expansion, and during the other the legislative powers of Congress. The Court itself was conscious of its weakness. . . . The loss of confidence in the Court was due not merely to the Court’s decision but to the false and malignant criticisms and portrayals of the Court which were spread widely through the North by influential newspapers . . . .”

Warren’s point, in other words, is that the greatest democratic expansion in US political history — the era of emancipation and Reconstruction — demanded a direct political attack on the power of the Supreme Court. Nor is it a coincidence that the court, as it began to recover its strength in the 1870s, led the reactionary attack on this democratic project.

Drawing direct lessons from the past is a fool’s errand, but this history should remind us that judicial power — however grandly it may be imagined by friends and foes alike — is critically dependent on political currents.

Read the entire piece here. I am not a Lincoln scholar, but there seems little in Karp’s piece about the role the Civil War played in Lincoln’s ability to challenge the pro-slavery court.

Is the 1619 Project backing-off some of its more problematic claims about the American founding?

It sure seems that way.

Here is Tom Mackaman and David North at World Socialist Web Site:

The New York Times, without announcement or explanation, has abandoned the central claim of the 1619 Project: that 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia—and not 1776—was the “true founding” of the United States.

The initial introduction to the Project, when it was rolled out in August 2019, stated that

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

The revised text now reads:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

A similar change was made from the print version of the 1619 Project, which has been sent out to millions of school children in all 50 states. The original version read:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.

The website version has deleted the key claim. It now reads:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.

It is not entirely clear when the Times deleted its “true founding” claim, but an examination of old cached versions of the 1619 Project text indicates that it probably took place on December 18, 2019.

These deletions are not mere wording changes. The “true founding” claim was the core element of the Project’s assertion that all of American history is rooted in and defined by white racial hatred of blacks. According to this narrative, trumpeted by Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, the American Revolution was a preemptive racial counterrevolution waged by white people in North America to defend slavery against British plans to abolish it. The fact that there is no historical evidence to support this claim did not deter the Times and Hannah-Jones from declaring that the historical identification of 1776 with the creation of a new nation is a myth, as is the claim that the Civil War was a progressive struggle aimed at the destruction of slavery. According to the New York Times and Hannah-Jones, the fight against slavery and all forms of oppression were struggles that black Americans always waged alone.

Read the rest here. For out other 1619 Project posts click here.