Archives for category: History

The Washington Post wrote about the teen who inspired Zaila Avant-Garde, the first African American to win the national spelling bee. A 13-year-old girl from Akron, MacNolia Cox, was among the first Black Americans to make it to the national spelling bee, 85 years ago. Her story says a lot about her determination, but also about the racism and segregation that she had to endure when she went to the championship bee in Washington, D.C. (Zaila is not only a spelling champion; she holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball skills. Watch the video. She’s amazing.) I had never heard of MacNolia Cox, but Zaila had, and she knew anything was possible.

About 3,000 people jammed into Union Station in Akron, Ohio, on the evening of Sunday, May 24, 1936. A military band played. A young man led some of the crowd in cheers; others burst into song. They were all awaiting the arrival of an unlikely hero: a tall and slender 13-year-old Black girl named MacNolia Cox. The shy eighth grader was Akron’s spelling bee champion.

A month earlier, MacNolia had stood on the stage at the city’s armory with 50 other children — the top scorers on a written spelling test. After 24 rounds, there were two spellers remaining. After 37 rounds, there were still two. Finally, MacNolia emerged victorious. With the proper spelling of “sciatica” and “voluble,” MacNolia became one of the first two Black children to qualify for the National Spelling Bee, held annually in the nation’s capital. The other was 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenney of New Jersey, who was also bound for Washington.

John S. Knight, the publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, which sponsored the regional competition, fretted over MacNolia’s win.
“Washington is a segregated city,” he told Mabel Norris, the 21-year-old White reporter assigned to accompany MacNolia, her mother Ladybird and MacNolia’s White teacher, Cordelia Greve, to the competition. “You will have all kinds of difficulties,” he said.

But MacNolia wasn’t thinking about any of that when she boarded the Capitol Limited with a new suitcase filled with new clothes, all gifts from the city’s Black community to a family that could not afford such indulgences. For 30 days, while she diligently studied, MacNolia had been celebrated by Black communities across the country, by churches, social clubs, academics and politicians, even by vaudeville celebrities. Band maestro “Fats” Waller and tap dancer Bill Robinson brought her onstage at the RKO Palace in Cleveland. Her name was mentioned in the same breath as Marian Anderson and Jesse Owens — and now, this send off.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” MacNolia declared with a wide grin.

“Bring back the championship,” hollered one person in the crowd.
“I’m going to try,” MacNolia promised as she settled in for her first train ride.

Hours later, near the Maryland border, MacNolia and her mother were ushered from their berths into the Jim Crow car.

The stories Mabel Norris wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal from Washington in May 1936 describe a fairy tale. Young MacNolia was whisked around the capital, seeing all the sights and even meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Beacon Journal did not seem to think its readers wanted to hear the rest of the story.

Norris did not mention the segregated train cars, and she described MacNolia’s accommodations in the city as “one of the finest tributes to the Akron district champion.” MacNolia and her mother were staying in great comfort, as the guests of a prominent Black surgeon, T. Edward Jones, who lived near U Street, the city’s “Black Broadway.” But they were doing so only because they were not welcome at the Willard Hotel where the other White competitors stayed. MacNolia could not understand why, and her mother was at a loss to explain.

On the night before the competition, the 17 finalists were invited to a banquet at the Hamilton Hotel. Mabel Norris waited by the elevator for the pair to arrive, until she felt a tap on her shoulder. The spelling bee champion, in a white frock, stood behind her. Mother and daughter had not been allowed to use the front entrance to the hotel. Instead, they were directed through the kitchen and up the backstairs. In the banquet room, a two-seat table had been set apart from the head table where the White children sat.

But MacNolia seemed undaunted as she crossed the stage at the National Museum auditorium in her blue organdy dress and blue socks just before 10 a.m. on the morning of May 26, 1936. “As cool as a cucumber,” Norris wrote. “The least excited and nervous of the group.” Spelling, certainly, was the same no matter if you were Black or White…

There were 10 spellers left when the competition began airing live on the radio over the Columbia Broadcast System; Elizabeth Kenney had been the 11th. “P-R-O-M-E-N-A-D-E,” MacNolia spelled.
There were just five left when MacNolia got the word “Nemesis.” “Oh, no!” Cornelia Greve exclaimed. She flipped through MacNolia’s dictionary, filled with red check marks for the words the girl had studied, but there was no mark next to “Nemesis.” She had believed proper nouns would be excluded from the word list.

MacNolia looked up at the ceiling again and started to spell “N-E-M- … ” she began.

Mable Norris jumped up in protest as MacNolia finished the word, spelling it incorrectly. Norris, too, believed the word violated the contest rules. “No capitalized words shall be given,” she reminded the judges. Nemesis is a Greek goddess who exacts retribution against those who show hubris.

After a long, heated argument, the judges huddled to consider Norris’s objection. Norris walked over to the CBS announcer and made her case on the air: It was discrimination, she told the national audience. The judges were uncomfortable with the idea of a Black winner, she said, a charge the judges would deny.

MacNolia’s retelling of the next moment, published in “Whatever Happened to MacNolia Cox?,” a biography written by her niece Georgia Lee Gay, is unemotional: “It was supposed to be spelled with a capital letter and was not part of the official list, so the judges ruled me out of the contest.” MacNolia did not shed a tear when she was eliminated, but Norris remembered crying for her.

A Black girl’s triumph

MacNolia Cox returned to Akron to a welcome as grand as her send-off. She was feted with armfuls of roses and chauffeured in a car parade in her honor. The procession ended at her school, where MacNolia was introduced to hundreds of cheering classmates. The city’s former mayor wrote a poem that underlined her achievements: “A child whose forebears sold for gold / On slavery’s auction blocks / Has brought renown to our old town. / All hail, MacNolia Cox.”

But the attention soon faded. Gay wrote that the opportunities and college scholarships that were promised in the months after the bee never materialized and MacNolia was left scarred by the prejudice she experienced. “In some ways, she felt she would have been better off to have never won the Beacon Journal bee,” she wrote.

MacNolia Cox — then MacNolia Montiere — died in 1976 at the age of 53. Her obituary mentioned the Beacon Journal bee, but her story has now faded for most but her family — and one 14-year-old Black girl from Louisiana.

As she stood on the National Bee Stage on Thursday night, Zaila Avant-garde told reporters, she thought of MacNolia and what she had endured 85 years earlier. Then Avant-garde looked down and calmly spelled the winning word — M-U-R-R-A-Y-A — becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian who teaches at Boston College. She writes an informative blog called “Letters from an American.” This one appeared recently.

She writes:

On July 9, 1868, Americans changed the U.S. Constitution for the fourteenth time, adapting our foundational document to construct a new nation without systematic Black enslavement.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had prohibited slavery on the basis of race, but it did not prevent the establishment of a system in which Black Americans continued to be unequal. Backed by President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over the presidency after an actor had murdered President Abraham Lincoln, white southern Democrats had done their best to push their Black neighbors back into subservience. So long as southern states had abolished enslavement, repudiated Confederate debts, and nullified the ordinances of secession, Johnson was happy to readmit them to full standing in the Union, still led by the very men who had organized the Confederacy and made war on the United States.

Northern Republican lawmakers refused. There was no way they were going to rebuild southern society on the same blueprint as existed before the Civil War, especially since the upcoming 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole persons for the first time in the nation’s history, giving southern states more power in Congress and the Electoral College after the war than they had had before it. Having just fought a war to destroy the South’s ideology, they were not going to let it regrow in peacetime.

Congress rejected Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction.

But then congressmen had to come up with their own plan. After months of hearings and debate, they proposed amending the Constitution to settle the outstanding questions of the war. Chief among these was how to protect the rights of Black Americans in states where they could neither vote nor testify in court or sit on a jury to protect their own interests.

Congress’s solution was the Fourteenth Amendment.

It took on the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that Black men “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens.”

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

The amendment also addressed the Dred Scott decision in another profound way. In 1857, southerners and Democrats who were adamantly opposed to federal power controlled the Supreme Court. They backed states’ rights. So the Dred Scott decision did more than read Black Americans out of our history; it dramatically circumscribed Congress’s power.

The Dred Scott decision declared that democracy was created at the state level, by those people in a state who were allowed to vote. In 1857, this meant white men, almost exclusively. If those people voted to do something widely unpopular—like adopting human enslavement, for example—they had the right to do so and Congress could not stop them. People like Abraham Lincoln pointed out that such domination by states would eventually mean that an unpopular minority could take over the national government, forcing their ideas on everyone else, but defenders of states’ rights stood firm.

And so, the Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals even if their state legislatures had passed discriminatory laws. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” it said. And then it went on to say that “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

The principles behind the Fourteenth Amendment were behind the 1870 creation of the Department of Justice, whose first job was to bring down the Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the South.

Those same principles took on profound national significance in the post–World War II era, when the Supreme Court began to use the equal protection clause and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment aggressively to apply the protections in the Bill of Rights to the states. The civil rights decisions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools, and the Loving v Virginia decision permitting interracial marriage, come from this doctrine. Under it, the federal government took up the mantle of protecting the rights of individual Americans in the states from the whims of state legislatures.

Opponents of these new civil rights protections quickly began to object that such decisions were “legislating from the bench,” rather than permitting state legislatures to make their own laws. These opponents began to call for “originalism,” the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted only as the Framers had intended when they wrote it, an argument that focused on the creation of law at the state level. Famously, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork, an originalist who had called for the rollback of the Supreme Court’s civil rights decisions, for a seat on that court.

Reacting to that nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) recognized the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment to equality: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy….”

It’s a funny thing to write about the Fourteenth Amendment in the twenty-first century. I am a scholar of Reconstruction, and for me the Fourteenth Amendment conjures up images of late-1860s Washington, D.C., a place still plagued by malaria carried on mosquitoes from the Washington City Canal, where generals and congressmen worried about how to protect the Black men who had died in extraordinary numbers to defend the government while an accidental president pardoned Confederate generals and plotted to destroy the national system Abraham Lincoln had created.

It should feel very distant. And yet, while a bipartisan group of senators rejected Bork’s nomination in 1987, in 2021 the Supreme Court is dominated by originalists, and the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment seem terribly current.

Of course, if today’s U.S. Supreme Court were truly originalist, Justice Amy Coney Barrett would not be eligible to serve on the Court, women would not have the right to vote, blacks would not be considered citizens, and so on.

Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. It is now a museum, which tells the story of Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. This short video and the text that follows it recount the life of Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six children fathered by Jefferson (two died at a young age). The video is based on the words of Madison Hemings, son of Sally and Thomas Jefferson.

The text posted here discusses the historical record of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. It reviews the evidence and lists the books that have been written by historians about Jefferson and Hemings. It is a fascinating read, pointing out, for example, that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha. Hemings was light-skinned, and some of her children and grandchildren “passed” as white.

We are all in debt to the current debate about critical race theory for kindling and rekindling attention to historical studies and their relevance to today. The states that are passing bans on honest discussions of the past will find that their efforts at censorship backfire. They are drawing more attention to the wrongs of the past. The attacks on The 1619 Project and CRT have awakened remarkable interest in the details of past injustices and to systemic racism. The truth will out.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a law (House Bill 2497) creating “The Texas 1836 Project,” intended to teach the true history of Texas and demonstrate its core values and patriotism.

Historians across the country worried that yet another state was trying to rewrite history and to prevent students from debating controversial issues, especially around the issues of racism and slavery.

Brian Franklin is a native Texan who teaches Texas history at Southern Methodist University. He has a very different take on the 1836 Project. He sees it as “a blessing in disguise for history teachers.” The Governor wants students to read the founding documents of the state of Texas and Professor Franklin says, “Bring it on!” The real history of Texas is right there in the founding documents.

Franklin at first responded on a Twitter thread. Then he wrote an article for Slate.

The text of H.B. 2497 is itself relatively tame. It wants to promote history education—a cause that every history teacher would champion. But the context of the bill is much more troublesome. Abbott and much of the Republican-led Texas Legislature have joined a battalion of state leaders across the country who have declared war on ideas they believe aim to destroy society. They’ve identified two scapegoats: the New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory, or CRT, a set of ideas coming from legal academia that is rarely directly taught in K–12 and college classrooms but has become a favorite dog whistle for the right. (If you’ve lost track of the many anti-CRT/1619 bills in play across the country, the situation is outlined in this New York Times piece from earlier this month.)

Enter the 1836 Project, and Greg Abbott’s rallying cry as he signed the bill: “Foundational principles” and “founding documents”! As a history professor, I say we take Abbott up on that challenge, especially the “documents” part. Time to start reading!

Let’s read the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence. It not only exposes the tyranny of Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, but also describes how Anglo Texans consistently bent and broke Mexican laws. In class, we can talk about how one of the laws that Texans violated was Mexico’s decade-old abolition of slavery. The declaration also describes Stephen F. Austin’s incarceration. In discussing what happened there, we can discover that Mexican officials rightly suspected Texans of fomenting illegal revolutions for

Let’s read Texas’ single most foundational document, the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. We will find several values familiar to present-day Texans: divided government, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms. But we will also find some “values” that don’t track very well in 2021. That it was illegal for either Congress or an individual to simply emancipate a slave. That even free Black people could not live in Texas without specific permission from the state. That “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians” had no rights as citizens.

Let’s read Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar’s message to the Texas Congress in December of 1838, where he calls for the “total extinction or total expulsion” of all Indigenous peoples in Texas. This included the Texas Cherokee, who had long-standing land rights recognized by Mexico and by Texas’ previous president, Sam Houston. In class, we can talk about how Lamar would make good on his proposal by sending a Texan army to massacre and drive out the remaining Cherokee in July 1839.

Finally, let’s take a close look at the “Declaration of Causes,” the document an elected Texas convention published in February 1861 to explain why the state was seceding from the United States. Here, no reader needs the 1619 Project or CRT to help them conjure the spirit of systemic racism. The document’s writers aren’t shy about their intentions. They believed in some “undeniable truths”: Their beloved state of Texas had been established “exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity.”* In Texas, Black people had “no agency” and were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” This enslavement was not just a temporary necessary evil; it was a positive good, “the revealed will of the Almighty Creator” to “all Christian nations.” This is “Christian heritage,” but not necessarily the kind the bill establishing the 1836 Project says it wants to promote.

Like Professor Franklin, I am a Texan. I studied Texas history, along with all of my classmates. We never read the founding documents. Governor Abbott has just opened a genuine opportunity for history teachers to grapple with difficult issues.

Thank you, Governor Abbott!

NCBT Teacher Justin Parmenter writes here about the reaction of the Republican-controlled Legislature to their rampant fear that teachers might try to indoctrinate students into radical views of American history and society, like discussing shameful episodes in the past. The legislators want patriotic history that makes students proud to be Americans.

First they passed a law requiring teachers to make public their lesson plans to prove that they are not “indoctrinating” students.

Parmenter begins:

Last month the NC House of Representatives passed a law entitled “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency” which would require teachers to post their lesson plans and details about all instructional materials online for public review. 

In defense of their support for the new legislation, which passed almost entirely along partisan lines, some Republican legislators cited the need to prevent indoctrination of North Carolina students.  

Iredell County Representative Jeffrey McNeely said, “Hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids. We’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts.”

At its meeting today, the North Carolina State Board of Education reviewed glossaries and unpacking documents related to new state social studies standards which will be implemented in school year 2021-22. (Unpacking documents are overarching documents intended to help teachers understand how the standards should be taught).

During the discussion, board member Amy White expressed her view that the standards unpacking documents needed to ensure North Carolina teachers are teaching their students that America is a great nation.

Is that true? Is it indoctrination?

When I grew up in Houston, Texas, I attended segregated public schools. Everything was segregated, including movie theaters, drinking foundations, churches, restaurants, public transit (the sign “colored” divided passengers, with blacks in the back of the bus; if there were more white passengers than black passengers, the sign was moved back and black passengers gave up their seats and stood), and everything else. Even newspaper ads were segregated, by both race and gender. Blacks entered white homes through the back door. Blacks were expected to step off the sidewalk and into the street when passing a white pedestrian.

In my high school American history class, we learned almost nothing about black history. Our textbooks recognized George Washington Carver and his discovery of the many uses of peanuts. That was about it. In eleventh-grade U.S. history, the textbook taught the now-discredited Dunning theory of the Reconstruction Era (William Archibald Dunning was a Columbia University history professor who taught the white Southern view of the period); we were taught that the South after the Civil War was overrun by corrupt black politicians who bankrupted their states and by white carpetbaggers who helped the corrupt blacks. We now know that the Dunning version of history was untrue, and that the post-Reconstruction governments in the Southern states produced a remarkable period of progressive legislation.

In college in the late 1950s, there were no courses in black history. Not until I was in graduate school did I study black history in depth and learn about the systematically vicious, brutal, and demeaning treatment of black Americans by white Americans. I knew it from life experience, but at the same time I did not know it in full, as Hannah-Jones presents it in The 1619 Project.

Her essay in the collection is a powerful and persuasive history of black people in the United States.

History has often been taught simply as facts to be memorized. But history taught well involves not only facts, but discussion about controversies. Historians agree about basic facts, but not about causes and consequences. Historians disagree. Events seldom if ever have a single cause. And they usually have multiple consequences. Students must learn about the disagreements and think critically about what they learned. They may come down on one side or the other, but they should learn to respect those who disagree with them.

Was the American Revolution intended to preserve slavery, as Hannah-Jones asserts? Most seismic events have multiple causes, and their participants have different motives. Some American rebels fought to escape British colonialism; some fought to avoid British taxation; and some fought to stop the abolitionist fervor from reaching their plantations. Is racism part of the DNA of America? If so, the situation is hopeless and the prospects for change are out of reach. Thoughtful people look at the same set of facts and draw different conclusions about their meaning. That’s what makes the study of history interesting.

In the current controversy surrounding The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones offers a pessimistic view of the treatment of black people in America. Her critics think she is too pessimistic. They don’t differ about facts, but about interpretations of facts. I usually find myself responding to questions of interpretation by saying, “It depends.”

Some white Americans say that the proof of black progress is that the nation elected and re-elected a black President; that some blacks (like Oprah and other stars of the entertainment and sports industries) are fabulously successful; that affirmative action has allowed blacks to enter elite universities and executive suites; and that Congress has passed multiple civil rights laws to forbid racial discrimination.

Other white Americans recognize that institutional and personal racism still exists, despite laws on the books, despite the success of Obama and Oprah. They know the statistics about black poverty, segregated schools, maternal health, access to medical care, and other indicators of disadvantage. They see black neighborhoods that are blighted, racially segregated, and lack decent public services. They know the incarceration rates for people of color. They know that state legislatures are passing laws to make it harder for them to vote. They see how few blacks make it into the executive suites.

If I were black, I would admire The 1619 Project and share it with my family and friends. I would be impressed by Nikole Hannah-Jones’ courage, audacity, and scholarship. I would feel that at long last the story of black people was told.

Should The 1619 Project be used in high schools when teaching American history? Absolutely yes. It should be taught alongside the criticisms of its ideas. It is a wonderful teaching tool. It is thought-provoking. It demonstrates how history can challenge conventional thinking. It shows black people as agents, not simply as victims. It shows a seamy and vicious side of American life that was real and important to know. Students should not be ignorant of black history. By using this material, students will learn that our understanding of history is constantly evolving and that the subject is a fascinating battleground of ideas.

Whether they agree with critic Sean Wilentz of Princeton or Hannah-Jones, they will be far better educated about American history by reading their disagreements. We must confront and debate our history and move beyond efforts to indoctrinate students with a whitewashing of the past.

Criticism of The 1619 Project appeared soon after its publication. On the right, it was denounced as an unjustified, outrageous attack on traditional American values and ideals, an attack on the Founding Fathers, an attack on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. President Trump denounced it and established the “1776 Commission” to urge the teaching of “traditional” history that instills patriotism and pride. Legislators in Republican-dominated states framed legislation to ban it as well as the teaching of “critical race theory.”

It was not only conservatives who objected to The 1619 Project. Five respected historians published their disagreements, sent them to The New York Times, and demanded corrections. Adam Serwer of The Atlantic reviewed the debate and offered a balanced view of the different criticisms, as well as the response by The New York Times to the critics.

He wrote:

The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.

The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.

In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.

Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.

Sean Wilentz of Princeton University delivered a lecture criticizing the Project, which was published in the New York Review of Books, and subsequently organized the letter signed by the five distinguished historians.

He first describes the traditional view of America as a nation becoming ever more committed to its ideals and then contrasts it to Hannah-Jones’ pessimistic view.

There is another view that challenges the familiar one, hailed by its supporters for forcing an honest reckoning with slavery and its unending consequences. This account asks profound and unsettling questions about the nation’s origins and bids us to regard the experience of the slaves as the true test of America’s professed ideals. Slavery, in this view, wasn’t simply an important part of American society at the founding and after; it defined a nation born in oppression and bad faith. While this view acknowledges the ideals of equality proclaimed by Jefferson and others, it regards them as hollow. Even after slavery ended, the racism that justified slavery persisted, not just as an aspect of American life but at its very core.

If the familiar view courts complacency, this one is vulnerable to an easy cynicism. Once slavery’s enormity is understood, as it should be, not as a temporary flaw but as an essential fact of American history, it can make the birth of the American republic and the subsequent rise of American democracy look as nothing more than the vindication of glittering generalities about freedom and equality founded on the oppression of blacks, enslaved and free, as well as the expropriation and slaughter of Native Americans. It can resemble, ironically, the reactionary proslavery insistence that the egalitarian self-evident truths of the Declaration were self-evident lies. It can leave our understanding of American history susceptible to moralizing distortions that seem compelling simply because they defy reassuring versions of the past.

Some of that cynicism is on display in The New York Times Magazine’s recently launched 1619 Project, enough to give ammunition to hostile critics who would discredit or minimize the entire enterprise of understanding America’s history of slavery and antislavery. The project’s lead essay, for example, by Nikole Hannah-Jones berates our national mythology for “conveniently” omitting “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.” Supposedly, Britain, by 1776, “had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere.” There were, the essay says, “growing calls” in London to abolish the slave trade, which would have “upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South.” Americans, in short, “may never have revolted against Britain” had the founders not believed that independence “was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.” The American Revolution, in effect, anticipated the slaveholders’ rebellion eighty-odd years later: the American patriots allegedly declared their independence of Britain in 1776 for the same reason that the Southern states seceded in 1860–1861, to guarantee that slavery would endure. American independence, in this view, was a precursor of Southern secession…

The five historians wrote the following letter, which was reproduced in the New York Times:

We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious plans to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums and related instructional material.

We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”

Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.

The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.

Sincerely,

Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University;
James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University;
James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York;
Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University;
Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.

Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine, responded to the letter from the five historians.

He wrote:

Editor’s response: 

Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.

The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.

The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).

Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.

As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.

The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim 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” is grounded in the historical record.

The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.

It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”

The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.

As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.

The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.

It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.

And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.

This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it — an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the prehistory of the period our project addresses.

Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.

That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.

Sincerely,


Jake Silverstein
Editor in chief

Adam Serwer reviewed the debate and wrote this in his article in The Atlantic:

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

In light of this debate, should The 1619 Project be used as a resource in teaching American history or should it be banned, as several states are now intending to do? I will address that question in the next post.

A series of essays called The 1619 Project was published in August 2019 by The New York Times Magazine, the nation’s most prestigious newspaper. Its primary organizer was Nikole Hannah-Jones, a highly experienced journalist who won a MacArthur award in 2017 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for The 1619 Project. The 1619 Project asserts that the history of America began with the arrival of slaves in that year. Hannah-Jones, in her introductory essay, argues that the United States was not a democracy until the civil rights struggles of blacks made it so. Her essays has the subtitle “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written; Black Americans have fought to make them true.”

The 1619 Project encountered a buzzsaw of criticism, some from distinguished historians who disagreed with some of its central premises (I will post their critique). It also outraged President Trump, who saw it as a great opportunity to unleash a culture war to defend “traditional” American values. In the final days of his administration, Trump appointed a “1776 Commission,” which recommended that American history should be taught in a way that would inspire patriotism and pride. Although there is no evidence that Republican state legislators read any part of The 1619 Project, they painted it as a demonic anti-American tirade that had to be banned from the schools.

Legislatures in Republican-controlled states began passing bans on teaching The 1619 Project and “critical race theory.” The Texas legislature recently proposed to restrict how teachers discuss current events, bar students from receiving course credit for civic engagement and, in the words of advocates, restore the role of “traditional history” to its rightful place of primacy by emphasizing the nation’s noble ideals, rather than its centuries-long record of failing to live up to them. Other states are devising similar legislation to assure that students learn only “patriotic” history.

I am reposting Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay here, so you can reach your own judgment. I hope you will take the time to read it in full. While you may disagree with some of her interpretive statements (was the American Revolution intended to preserve slavery from the growing abolitionist spirit in England? Is racism part of the American DNA?). Her account of the history of blacks in America is very different from what appears in high school textbooks.

Whether or not you agree with her interpretations, you should inform yourself by reading her essay. Trump, the governors and legislatures of Red states do not want students to be informed about black history. Debate her views, please, but read them first.

Nikole Hannah-Jones writes:

My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace as soon as it showed the slightest tatter.

My dad was born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Miss., where black people bent over cotton from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, just as their enslaved ancestors had done not long before. The Mississippi of my dad’s youth was an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence. White residents in Mississippi lynched more black people than those in any other state in the country, and the white people in my dad’s home county lynched more black residents than those in any other county in Mississippi, often for such “crimes” as entering a room occupied by white women, bumping into a white girl or trying to start a sharecroppers union. My dad’s mother, like all the black people in Greenwood, could not vote, use the public library or find work other than toiling in the cotton fields or toiling in white people’s houses. So in the 1940s, she packed up her few belongings and her three small children and joined the flood of black Southerners fleeing North. She got off the Illinois Central Railroad in Waterloo, Iowa, only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon line.

Grandmama, as we called her, found a house in a segregated black neighborhood on the city’s east side and then found the work that was considered black women’s work no matter where black women lived — cleaning white people’s houses. Dad, too, struggled to find promise in this land. In 1962, at age 17, he signed up for the Army. Like many young men, he joined in hopes of escaping poverty. But he went into the military for another reason as well, a reason common to black men: Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.

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. Read all the stories.

The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. Like all the black men and women in my family, he believed in hard work, but like all the black men and women in my family, no matter how hard he worked, he never got ahead.

So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.

I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.

Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.

In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.

Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.

My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.” And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.

At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. As the abolitionist William Goodell wrote in 1853, “If any thing founded on falsehood might be called a science, we might add the system of American slavery to the list of the strict sciences.”

[Listen to a new podcast with Nikole Hannah-Jones that tells the story of slavery and its legacy like you’ve never heard it before.]

Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised “Negroes for Sale.” Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins. In most courts, they had no legal standing. Enslavers could rape or murder their property without legal consequence. Enslaved people could own nothing, will nothing and inherit nothing. They were legally tortured, including by those working for Jefferson himself. They could be worked to death, and often were, in order to produce the highest profits for the white people who owned them.

Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

Jefferson and the other founders were keenly aware of this hypocrisy. And so in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he tried to argue that it wasn’t the colonists’ fault. Instead, he blamed the king of England for forcing the institution of slavery on the unwilling colonists and called the trafficking in human beings a crime. Yet neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage.

There is no mention of slavery in the final Declaration of Independence. Similarly, 11 years later, when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word. In the texts in which they were making the case for freedom to the world, they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it. The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery. The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge. Like many others, the writer and abolitionist Samuel Bryan called out the deceit, saying of the Constitution, “The words are dark and ambiguous; such as no plain man of common sense would have used, [and] are evidently chosen to conceal from Europe, that in this enlightened country, the practice of slavery has its advocates among men in the highest stations.”

With independence, the founding fathers could no longer blame slavery on Britain. The sin became this nation’s own, and so, too, the need to cleanse it. The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom, scholars today assert, led to a hardening of the racial caste system. This ideology, reinforced not just by laws but by racist science and literature, maintained that black people were subhuman, a belief that allowed white Americans to live with their betrayal. By the early 1800s, according to the legal historians Leland B. Ware, Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond, white Americans, whether they engaged in slavery or not, “had a considerable psychological as well as economic investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.” While liberty was the inalienable right of the people who would be considered white, enslavement and subjugation became the natural station of people who had any discernible drop of “black” blood.

The Supreme Court enshrined this thinking in the law in its 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that black people, whether enslaved or free, came from a “slave” race. This made them inferior to white people and, therefore, incompatible with American democracy. Democracy was for citizens, and the “Negro race,” the court ruled, was “a separate class of persons,” which the founders had “not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government” and had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” This belief, that black people were not merely enslaved but were a slave race, became the root of the endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day. If black people could not ever be citizens, if they were a caste apart from all other humans, then they did not require the rights bestowed by the Constitution, and the “we” in the “We the People” was not a lie.

On Aug. 14, 1862, a mere five years after the nation’s highest courts declared that no black person could be an American citizen, President Abraham Lincoln called a group of five esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting. It was one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House as guests. The Civil War had been raging for more than a year, and black abolitionists, who had been increasingly pressuring Lincoln to end slavery, must have felt a sense of great anticipation and pride.

The war was not going well for Lincoln. Britain was contemplating whether to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf, and Lincoln, unable to draw enough new white volunteers for the war, was forced to reconsider his opposition to allowing black Americans to fight for their own liberation. The president was weighing a proclamation that threatened to emancipate all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union if the states did not end the rebellion. The proclamation would also allow the formerly enslaved to join the Union army and fight against their former “masters.” But Lincoln worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be. Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?” he had said four years earlier. “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”

That August day, as the men arrived at the White House, they were greeted by the towering Lincoln and a man named James Mitchell, who eight days before had been given the title of a newly created position called the commissioner of emigration. This was to be his first assignment. After exchanging a few niceties, Lincoln got right to it. He informed his guests that he had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.

“Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration,” Lincoln told them. “You and we are different races. … Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”

You can imagine the heavy silence in that room, as the weight of what the president said momentarily stole the breath of these five black men. It was 243 years to the month since the first of their ancestors had arrived on these shores, before Lincoln’s family, long before most of the white people insisting that this was not their country. The Union had not entered the war to end slavery but to keep the South from splitting off, yet black men had signed up to fight. Enslaved people were fleeing their forced-labor camps, which we like to call plantations, trying to join the effort, serving as spies, sabotaging confederates, taking up arms for his cause as well as their own. And now Lincoln was blaming them for the war. “Although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other … without the institution of slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence,” the president told them. “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

As Lincoln closed the remarks, Edward Thomas, the delegation’s chairman, informed the president, perhaps curtly, that they would consult on his proposition. “Take your full time,” Lincoln said. “No hurry at all.”

Nearly three years after that White House meeting, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. By summer, the Civil War was over, and four million black Americans were suddenly free. Contrary to Lincoln’s view, most were not inclined to leave, agreeing with the sentiment of a resolution against black colonization put forward at a convention of black leaders in New York some decades before: “This is our home, and this our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers. … Here we were born, and here we will die.”

That the formerly enslaved did not take up Lincoln’s offer to abandon these lands is an astounding testament to their belief in this nation’s founding ideals. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. With federal troops tempering widespread white violence, black Southerners started branches of the Equal Rights League — one of the nation’s first human rights organizations — to fight discrimination and organize voters; they headed in droves to the polls, where they placed other formerly enslaved people into seats that their enslavers had once held. The South, for the first time in the history of this country, began to resemble a democracy, with black Americans elected to local, state and federal offices. Some 16 black men served in Congress — including Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who became the first black man elected to the Senate. (Demonstrating just how brief this period would be, Revels, along with Blanche Bruce, would go from being the first black man elected to the last for nearly a hundred years, until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts took office in 1967.) More than 600 black men served in Southern state legislatures and hundreds more in local positions.

These black officials joined with white Republicans, some of whom came down from the North, to write the most egalitarian state constitutions the South had ever seen. They helped pass more equitable tax legislation and laws that prohibited discrimination in public transportation, accommodation and housing. Perhaps their biggest achievement was the establishment of that most democratic of American institutions: the public school. Public education effectively did not exist in the South before Reconstruction. The white elite sent their children to private schools, while poor white children went without an education. But newly freed black people, who had been prohibited from learning to read and write during slavery, were desperate for an education. So black legislators successfully pushed for a universal, state-funded system of schools — not just for their own children but for white children, too. Black legislators also helped pass the first compulsory education laws in the region. Southern children, black and white, were now required to attend schools like their Northern counterparts. Just five years into Reconstruction, every Southern state had enshrined the right to a public education for all children into its constitution. In some states, like Louisiana and South Carolina, small numbers of black and white children, briefly, attended schools together.

Led by black activists and a Republican Party pushed left by the blatant recalcitrance of white Southerners, the years directly after slavery saw the greatest expansion of human and civil rights this nation would ever see. In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, making the United States one of the last nations in the Americas to outlaw slavery. The following year, black Americans, exerting their new political power, pushed white legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act, the nation’s first such law and one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed. It codified black American citizenship for the first time, prohibited housing discrimination and gave all Americans the right to buy and inherit property, make and enforce contracts and seek redress from courts. In 1868, Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, ensuring citizenship to any person born in the United States. Today, thanks to this amendment, every child born here to a European, Asian, African, Latin American or Middle Eastern immigrant gains automatic citizenship. The 14th Amendment also, for the first time, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law. Ever since, nearly all other marginalized groups have used the 14th Amendment in their fights for equality (including the recent successful arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of same-sex marriage). Finally, in 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the most critical aspect of democracy and citizenship — the right to vote — to all men regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

For this fleeting moment known as Reconstruction, the majority in Congress seemed to embrace the idea that out of the ashes of the Civil War, we could create the multiracial democracy that black Americans envisioned even if our founding fathers did not.

But it would not last.

Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity. The many gains of Reconstruction were met with fierce white resistance throughout the South, including unthinkable violence against the formerly enslaved, wide-scale voter suppression, electoral fraud and even, in some extreme cases, the overthrow of democratically elected biracial governments. Faced with this unrest, the federal government decided that black people were the cause of the problem and that for unity’s sake, it would leave the white South to its own devices. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes, in order to secure a compromise with Southern Democrats that would grant him the presidency in a contested election, agreed to pull federal troops from the South. With the troops gone, white Southerners quickly went about eradicating the gains of Reconstruction. The systemic white suppression of black life was so severe that this period between the 1880s and the 1920 and ’30s became known as the Great Nadir, or the second slavery. Democracy would not return to the South for nearly a century.

White Southerners of all economic classes, on the other hand, thanks in significant part to the progressive policies and laws black people had championed, experienced substantial improvement in their lives even as they forced black people back into a quasi slavery. As Waters McIntosh, who had been enslaved in South Carolina, lamented, “It was the poor white man who was freed by the war, not the Negroes.”

Georgia pines flew past the windows of the Greyhound bus carrying Isaac Woodard home to Winnsboro, S.C. After serving four years in the Army in World War II, where Woodard had earned a battle star, he was given an honorable discharge earlier that day at Camp Gordon and was headed home to meet his wife. When the bus stopped at a small drugstore an hour outside Atlanta, Woodard got into a brief argument with the white driver after asking if he could use the restroom. About half an hour later, the driver stopped again and told Woodard to get off the bus. Crisp in his uniform, Woodard stepped from the stairs and saw the police waiting for him. Before he could speak, one of the officers struck him in his head with a billy club, beating him so badly that he fell unconscious. The blows to Woodard’s head were so severe that when he woke in a jail cell the next day, he could not see. The beating occurred just 4½ hours after his military discharge. At 26, Woodard would never see again.

There was nothing unusual about Woodard’s horrific maiming. It was part of a wave of systemic violence deployed against black Americans after Reconstruction, in both the North and the South. As the egalitarian spirit of post-Civil War America evaporated under the desire for national reunification, black Americans, simply by existing, served as a problematic reminder of this nation’s failings. White America dealt with this inconvenience by constructing a savagely enforced system of racial apartheid that excluded black people almost entirely from mainstream American life — a system so grotesque that Nazi Germany would later take inspiration from it for its own racist policies.

Despite the guarantees of equality in the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court’s landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 declared that the racial segregation of black Americans was constitutional. With the blessing of the nation’s highest court and no federal will to vindicate black rights, starting in the late 1800s, Southern states passed a series of laws and codes meant to make slavery’s racial caste system permanent by denying black people political power, social equality and basic dignity. They passed literacy tests to keep black people from voting and created all-white primaries for elections. Black people were prohibited from serving on juries or testifying in court against a white person. South Carolina prohibited white and black textile workers from using the same doors. Oklahoma forced phone companies to segregate phone booths. Memphis had separate parking spaces for black and white drivers. Baltimore passed an ordinance outlawing black people from moving onto a block more than half white and white people from moving onto a block more than half black. Georgia made it illegal for black and white people to be buried next to one another in the same cemetery. Alabama barred black people from using public libraries that their own tax dollars were paying for. Black people were expected to jump off the sidewalk to let white people pass and call all white people by an honorific, though they received none no matter how old they were. In the North, white politicians implemented policies that segregated black people into slum neighborhoods and into inferior all-black schools, operated whites-only public pools and held white and “colored” days at the country fair, and white businesses regularly denied black people service, placing “Whites Only” signs in their windows. States like California joined Southern states in barring black people from marrying white people, while local school boards in Illinois and New Jersey mandated segregated schools for black and white children.

This caste system was maintained through wanton racial terrorism. And black veterans like Woodard, especially those with the audacity to wear their uniform, had since the Civil War been the target of a particular violence. This intensified during the two world wars because white people understood that once black men had gone abroad and experienced life outside the suffocating racial oppression of America, they were unlikely to quietly return to their subjugation at home. As Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi said on the Senate floor during World War I, black servicemen returning to the South would “inevitably lead to disaster.” Giving a black man “military airs” and sending him to defend the flag would bring him “to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected.”

Many white Americans saw black men in the uniforms of America’s armed services not as patriotic but as exhibiting a dangerous pride. Hundreds of black veterans were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched. We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.

This ideology — that black people belonged to an inferior, subhuman race — did not simply disappear once slavery ended. If the formerly enslaved and their descendants became educated, if we thrived in the jobs white people did, if we excelled in the sciences and arts, then the entire justification for how this nation allowed slavery would collapse. Free black people posed a danger to the country’s idea of itself as exceptional; we held up the mirror in which the nation preferred not to peer. And so the inhumanity visited on black people by every generation of white America justified the inhumanity of the past.

Just as white Americans feared, World War II ignited what became black Americans’ second sustained effort to make democracy real. As the editorial board of the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “We wage a two-pronged attack against our enslavers at home and those abroad who will enslave us.” Woodard’s blinding is largely seen as one of the catalysts for the decades-long rebellion we have come to call the civil rights movement. But it is useful to pause and remember that this was the second mass movement for black civil rights, the first being Reconstruction. As the centennial of slavery’s end neared, black people were still seeking the rights they had fought for and won after the Civil War: the right to be treated equally by public institutions, which was guaranteed in 1866 with the Civil Rights Act; the right to be treated as full citizens before the law, which was guaranteed in 1868 by the 14th Amendment; and the right to vote, which was guaranteed in 1870 by the 15th Amendment. In response to black demands for these rights, white Americans strung them from trees, beat them and dumped their bodies in muddy rivers, assassinated them in their front yards, firebombed them on buses, mauled them with dogs, peeled back their skin with fire hoses and murdered their children with explosives set off inside a church.

For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle. This nation’s white founders set up a decidedly undemocratic Constitution that excluded women, Native Americans and black people, and did not provide the vote or equality for most Americans. But the laws born out of black resistance guarantee the franchise for all and ban discrimination based not just on race but on gender, nationality, religion and ability. It was the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.

No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good. We are the most likely to support programs like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, and to oppose programs that harm the most vulnerable. For instance, black Americans suffer the most from violent crime, yet we are the most opposed to capital punishment. Our unemployment rate is nearly twice that of white Americans, yet we are still the most likely of all groups to say this nation should take in refugees.

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. As one scholar, Joe R. Feagin, put it, “Enslaved African-Americans have been among the foremost freedom-fighters this country has produced.” For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.

They say our people were born on the water.

When it occurred, no one can say for certain. Perhaps it was in the second week, or the third, but surely by the fourth, when they had not seen their land or any land for so many days that they lost count. It was after fear had turned to despair, and despair to resignation, and resignation to an abiding understanding. The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth. They were no longer Mbundu or Akan or Fulani. These men and women from many different nations, all shackled together in the suffocating hull of the ship, they were one people now.

Just a few months earlier, they had families, and farms, and lives and dreams. They were free. They had names, of course, but their enslavers did not bother to record them. They had been made black by those people who believed that they were white, and where they were heading, black equaled “slave,” and slavery in America required turning human beings into property by stripping them of every element that made them individuals. This process was called seasoning, in which people stolen from western and central Africa were forced, often through torture, to stop speaking their native tongues and practicing their native religions.

But as the sociologist Glenn Bracey wrote, “Out of the ashes of white denigration, we gave birth to ourselves.” For as much as white people tried to pretend, black people were not chattel. And so the process of seasoning, instead of erasing identity, served an opposite purpose: In the void, we forged a new culture all our own.

Today, our very manner of speaking recalls the Creole languages that enslaved people innovated in order to communicate both with Africans speaking various dialects and the English-speaking people who enslaved them. Our style of dress, the extra flair, stems back to the desires of enslaved people — shorn of all individuality — to exert their own identity. Enslaved people would wear their hat in a jaunty manner or knot their head scarves intricately. Today’s avant-garde nature of black hairstyles and fashion displays a vibrant reflection of enslaved people’s determination to feel fully human through self-expression. The improvisational quality of black art and music comes from a culture that because of constant disruption could not cling to convention. Black naming practices, so often impugned by mainstream society, are themselves an act of resistance. Our last names belong to the white people who once owned us. That is why the insistence of many black Americans, particularly those most marginalized, to give our children names that we create, that are neither European nor from Africa, a place we have never been, is an act of self-determination. When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi Delta, we birthed jazz and blues. And it was in the deeply impoverished and segregated neighborhoods where white Americans forced the descendants of the enslaved to live that teenagers too poor to buy instruments used old records to create a new music known as hip-hop.

Our speech and fashion and the drum of our music echoes Africa but is not African. Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture. In turn, “mainstream” society has coveted our style, our slang and our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture as its own. As Langston Hughes wrote in 1926, “They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed —/I, too, am America.”

For centuries, white Americans have been trying to solve the “Negro problem.” They have dedicated thousands of pages to this endeavor. It is common, still, to point to rates of black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime and college attendance, as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable. But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.

At 43, I am part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship. Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years; we have been legally “free” for just 50. Yet in that briefest of spans, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination, and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed, black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans.

What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?

When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag. As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.

I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

Billy Townsend doesn’t pull any punches. In this post, he tears into the State Commissioner for thinking he can indoctrinate the students of Florida with lies.

He titles his piece:

Indoctrinate this, part 1: The voices of the Great Migration laugh at Richard Corcoran

A grifter who can’t make finalist in a university president search rigged for him is no match for the honest, competitive study of America — which is an unpoliceable classroom without walls.

I was already in the process of writing and documenting this piece about The Great Migration’s relevance to today’s economic and social moment when the comical ball of failure and grift that is Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran did what he tends to do.

He helped me — by saying really dumb stuff.

Indeed, it’s hard to quantify all the usefully dumb stuff he said to an audience at Hillsdale College during his recent freestyle Facebook rant dressed up as a Q&A. I will try, bit by bit, in weeks to come.

But the passage that follows is most relevant to this article. It’s about the importance of indoctrinating your kids and mine with whatever nonsense Richard Corcoran claims to believe at any given time. I see no evidence he actually believes in anything but petty personal dominance, which means the “indoctrination” will morph from moment to moment if he thinks he can bully you with it. Indeed, note the part in bold at the end. I think it illustrates pretty well Corcoran’s embarrassing sense of himself as tiny dictator.

But you have to police it on a daily basis, it’s 185,000 teachers in a classroom with anywhere from 18-25 kids and it you’re not physically there in the classroom. I will tell you it’s working in the universities and it’s starting to work in… I’ve censored or fired or terminated numerous teachers for doing that. I’m getting sued right now in Duval County … because it was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter… we made sure she was terminated and now we’re being sued by every one of the liberal left groups for “freedom of speech” issues and I say to them … “look let’s not even talk about whether it’s right or true or good …

That, of course, directly conflicts with this laughably vague, unenforceable, and undefinable rule Corcoran is now pushing though the Florida Department of Education as some kind of poor man’s performative “Cultural Revolution.”

Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Keep this Corcoran prologue in mind as you read the rest of this article, which is Part 1 of 2. And remember that I didn’t know any of what follows about Florida and American history, really, until about 12 years ago.

That’s because of the “indoctrination” of “traditional,” inaccurate, and woefully incomplete American History standards taught by my public schools in Florida and my elite private college in Massachusetts.

I had to teach myself — with help from microfilm, Google, and some great historians — through engaging the actual words and behaviors of people who lived the history as it happened.

Kids today are so far ahead of me at their age. They already know so so so so much more than I did. I’ve maybe helped a little with my books and countless vibrant discussions with young people inside classrooms and outside classrooms. I find them insatiably hungry to know who they are and how they came to fit into America in the way they do.

If that frightens Corcoran, perhaps he should come “police” me, if he can. But I’m not very important, obviously. And I’m not the reason Corcoran has already lost.

Every kid is their own teacher

HBO has put Tulsa on film twice in the last 18 months in two different series. “Drunk History” is more factual and more fun than Corcoran’s grifter drivel. YouTube blows up lies as often as it creates them. Knowledgable “amateurs” on Twitter embarrass grifter clowns and gatekeeping blowhards alike every single day. Of all subjects a teacher “teaches,” history and its adjacent social topics are the least like syringes of content to inject.

Whatever side you take, the ongoing battle for historical memory and its modern application isn’t occurring within walled classrooms. No one can police it; and no one can make a kid — or even an adult — swallow an obvious lie, even if it’s important to the brittle self-identity of the liars. You might test a lie and get a kid to bubble in the lie you want them to for the sake of a cheap grade; but that’s not indoctrination. Not even close.

Keep reading. There’s lots more about the Great Migration and the lies taught about it.

Billy Townsend served as a school board member in Polk County, Florida. He now blogs about the schools in his state and takes aim at the state’s determination to cripple public schools while shifting more than a billion dollars to voucher schools.

In this article in the Orlando Sentinel, he compares a public high school to the inferior voucher schools that the state wants more of.

He writes:

Six years ago, essentially zero Jones High School students took physics. Today, more than 250 do. That means 250 Orlando-area young people per year now have a better chance of becoming engineers or scientists or doctors. We should celebrate that. Physics is crucial to many educational and professional journeys.

Unfortunately, as a recent former Polk County school board member, I know all too well the rarity of serious growth in Florida’s education capacity. Our state is steadily dismantling education capacity everywhere through its contempt for public schools and indifference to voucher-school performance.

Capacity destruction drives Florida’s chronic educator shortages. It’s one reason Florida has among America’s worst state test score “learning rates,” according to The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University.

Capacity destruction particularly harms children and communities that lack capital. Quite often, these low-capital communities are also historically black communities. A thriving physics program — one that exceeds enrollment for most other wealthier schools in Florida — demonstrates real capital investment in community capacity.

That makes the Jones physics story all the more important — and a powerful counterpoint to Florida’s failed state voucher programs, particularly the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) voucher.

Like many voucher schools, the Jones enrollment of nearly 1,600 is almost entirely Black. A casual observer may see it as “segregated,” in the sense we’ve come to popularly understand segregation. But there is a massive difference between the Jones community-support “segregation” and the “segregation” of schools in Florida’s low-capital voucher-school marketplace.

The Sentinel’s invaluable “Schools without Rules” series in 2017 documented the failures of many voucher schools and how little Florida leaders care about it. It also illustrated how Florida’s testing system and barbaric mass third-grade retention policies drive children into voucher schools in a disfigured conception of “choice.”

But the Sentinel did not delve deeply into the extreme racial segregation of Florida’s voucher-school marketplace, as I did in Polk County.

As of last month, the Step Up for Students voucher marketplace shows 16 Polk County voucher schools have enrollments of at least 76 percent Black children. Twelve of the 16 schools are at least 95 percent Black. Six are 100 percent Black.

Not one of those schools has any accreditation. None of them have any state or local oversight. There is no elected board member or unelected bureaucrat to call when these schools defraud you. More than 800 Black children in Polk County attend these segregated, low-capital so-called schools at any given time.

Moreover, the Urban Institute’s 2017 study of Florida’s voucher marketplace, the only recent study of its kind, found that 61 percent of voucher recipients abandon their FTC voucher within two years. 75 percent abandon the voucher within three years. That’s an extraordinary record of failure and churn. Voucher advocates twist themselves into knots insisting this is not a 75-percent 3-year program dropout rate. But it is.

Many voucher schools resemble the worst of pre-Brown vs. Board of Education American schools — operating in strip mall storefronts with names like “Endtime Christian School of Excellence.” That is the name and description of a very real and very typical voucher school in Lake Wales. Yet, Florida is expanding the roughly $1 billion a year in direct tax money and corporate tax-shelter cash it spends each year to defraud black children and parents – and everyone else.

Runaway voucher spending with no oversight has built zero capacity to actually provide education. That’s because money alone cannot buy education capacity; only consistent, focused effort.

There are very few decent voucher products to buy. And decent private schools, almost without exception, do not rely on vouchers for survival or take many voucher kids. Vouchers do not cover the tuition of serious private schools, which have full-tuition paying customers and endowments and capital and accreditation. Such private schools are also very, very white.

School segregation, integration and equity pose some of society’s hardest, most complex challenges. In my experience as a school-board member and advocate, human beings want to attend schools that reflect their communities; they want to avoid busing; they want equality — or advantage — in resources; they (often) want diversity in faculty and fellow students; and they want to be in the majority of a school population. People want all of this at the same time in the same school.

Jones provides a far better model for addressing that challenge than vouchers. Indeed, I would not call the Jones model of schooling “segregation.” I would call it “community ownership” and Jones is literally a “Community Partnership School.” That means it works rigorously with the Children’s Home Society of Florida, Orange Blossom Health, and the University of Central Florida to provide “wraparound” social services and slowly, painstakingly build capacity for the Parramore/Lorna Doone community and its high school.

Today, the Jones community school model is building capacity in physics while most of the rest of Florida is destroying it. That is a public-school accomplishment to celebrate from a model far superior to the failed voucher model state power prefers.