Most Americans are familiar with the big years in history — 1620, 1776, 1860, 1941.
Nikole Hannah-Jones has spent much of her life thinking about 1619.
That’s the year a ship of 20 to 30 Africans arrived in Point Comfort, Va., beginning a slave trade that would tear the country apart, leaving wounds that fester to this day.
Jones is a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, centering her work on systematic inequalities in schools and housing. In August, she spearheaded the 1619 Project, an ambitious, sweeping series of articles in The New York Times Magazine meant to re-examine slavery and the forgotten role blacks have played in shaping American history on the 400th anniversary of that slave ship arriving in the New World.
The project was praised for its boldness and quickly sold out, but there was backlash, too, with such conservatives as Newt Gingrich calling it propaganda.
Jones talked about the project on Thursday to students at Reynolds High School and addressed school segregation later in the evening at Winston-Salem State University.
A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism program and a former reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, Jones told a few hundred students at Reynolds about her experience growing up in Waterloo, Iowa. Her black studies class covered slavery with a few paragraphs in her textbook before jumping to the Civil Rights Movement. Jones was hungry for more information. A teacher recommended, “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America,” where she first came across the date 1619.
“It was like a bolt of lightning,” she said.
Jones asked the students how many had studied that year.
A few hands shot up.
Jones said she considers it as important as 1776. She worried that the 400th anniversary of that first slave ship would come and go without any acknowledgement.
“This was my opportunity to push 1619 into the American psyche,” she said.
Jones is a high-profile journalist who has won several awards for her reporting with Pro Publica and The Times, and in 2017 she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” So when she approached The Times’ editors about her vision for acknowledging 1619, they got on board. She enlisted several black writers, journalists and photographers to contribute to the project,
The stories are part of Jones’ goal of re-framing the country’s history while empowering blacks.
“I’ve heard from black people that we’re born into a country that makes us feel ashamed, that makes us feel as if we haven’t accomplished anything,” Jones said. “That knowledge that you can challenge a narrative people have of you is powerful.”
History acknowledges that enslaved people picked cotton, but it rarely sheds a light on the role they played in building Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, or how their agrarian know-how led to the production of rice, which made a lot of plantation owners rich.
Jones also talked about the language she used in the 1619 Project, using the words “enslaved people” instead of slaves and “slave labor camps” for plantations. These were places where people were forced to work and tortured, she said.
“We’re cleaning up the language that made people think that slavery was not that bad,” she said.
Reynolds is among 500 schools in the country that are incorporating the 1619 Project into their curriculum, through such things as visual art, dance and photography, said Pamela Kirkland, the arts magnet director for the school.
Rebecca McKnight, the social studies director for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said some high schools and middle schools teachers were provided copies of the 1619 Project as a way to learn how to teach “hard history” or history that can be difficult to teach. The Pulitzer Center provided the copies, she said.
“Slavery is one of the hardest topics to do justice with because so much of it will make students angry and question and wonder how did we do that to people,” said McKnight, who attended Jones’ talk at Reynolds. “So this fits in well.”