The Pulitzer Prize-winning effort, which has been largely acclaimed by scholars, historians and educators, challenges readers to think about the beginning of slavery on American shores as foundational to the nation’s origin story. That notion has made it a frequent target of Republicans, many of whom have criticized the initiative as emphasizing racial divisions and sought to counter it with accounts they say will instill patriotism in students.
The latest battles over the 1619 Project are playing out in state legislatures. But for the most part, efforts to prevent it from being taught in schools haven’t gained much steam.
Republican lawmakers in at least five states – Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota – recently introduced bills that would prohibit the 1619 Project in schools or cut funding for those that use the project to inform curricula. Two of the bills have failed to pass out of committee. Another was withdrawn by the same legislator who proposed it.
Some of the project’s conservative detractors have argued that reframing the nation’s history through the lens of slavery serves to delegitimize the idea of the US as an exceptional nation founded on principles of liberty and freedom.
For the project’s founders, disrupting that notion of America is exactly the point. And for many educators and historians, attempts to quash a more critical examination of slavery’s role in the nation’s history – even if they don’t go anywhere – are troubling.
Historians and educators have rejected the bills
The 1619 Project is the brainchild of The New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has spent her career writing about modern racial inequities and segregation. Originally published online, the project was turned into a limited podcast series and developed into lesson plans by the Pulitzer Center – which are now available online for free.
The idea of using the 1619 Project in school curricula has prompted pushback from Republicans at the highest levels of government, including the now disbanded 1776 commission formed by former President Donald Trump.
Several of the state bills appear to be modeled after a federal bill proposed by US Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas last year, which also failed to gain traction in the Senate.
The various bills refer to the 1619 Project as a “racially divisive and revisionist account of history,” an attempt “to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded” and an effort to “reframe this country’s history in a way that promotes racial divisiveness and displaces historical understanding with ideology.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, says the 1619 Project offers students a valuable perspective through which to consider American history, one that is worthy of examination and discussion whether readers ultimately agree with its thesis.
But the legislators who have tried to prevent it from being included in lesson plans are failing to recognize that, he said.
“What this legislation seeks to do is to paper over current divisions and current inequalities by not teaching about their histories,” he said. “That’s not going to solve any problems. That’s just ignoring them.”
Groups that represent social studies teachers have rejected such bills, too.
“Slavery is hard history that must be actively addressed in social studies classrooms,” the National Council for the Social Studies said in a statement addressing legislative attempts to prevent the project from being taught in schools. “Aversion to slavery in the social studies curriculum only serves to miseducate students who will carry the mantle of being citizens in our democratic society.”
Some bills failed, while at least one advanced
Despite the efforts of a handful of state lawmakers, most haven’t supported legislation that would penalize schools for including 1619 Project materials in lesson plans.
The Arkansas bill failed in committee on Tuesday, with opponents offering various reasons for their objections. Some argued that the project featured a side of history that had long been ignored in schools, while others said the bill amounted to censorship.
“The purpose of social studies is to cultivate leaders. The purpose of history is to tell people what has happened and how to analyze stuff critically,” high school student Jack Clay said, according to CNN affiliate KATV.
The Mississippi bill also failed to pass out of committee. Meanwhile, the South Dakota bill was withdrawn last week shortly after its first reading at the request of its sponsor, state Rep. Phil Jensen. He told The 19th News that he had done so to focus on other priorities, including a bill celebrating Black History Month. That bill has also come under fire by the state’s Democrats.
But in Iowa and Missouri, the debate rages on. Republicans in Iowa voted Tuesday to advance their version of the bill out of subcommittee. The Missouri bill also remains active, according to the state House’s website.
Historians and educators are still concerned
Still, Grossman says the fact that such bills are being introduced is concerning in itself.
The subject of slavery is often mistaught, mischaracterized or sentimentalized in US schools – a topic that has been explored by researchers and the 1619 Project itself. A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project found that popular history textbooks failed to adequately cover the institution of slavery and how enslaved people were treated, and that high school seniors failed to answer basic questions about that period.
Meanwhile, legislators who have tried to prevent the 1619 Project from being taught in schools are downplaying slavery’s role in the nation’s history, Grossman said.
“It is impossible to understand most of the people who wrote the founding documents without understanding that they lived in worlds shaped by the existence of slavery as a labor system and as a system of human relations,” he said.
Even if most of the bills fail to become law, Grossman predicts similar proposals are likely to resurface in communities and on school boards – and could potentially impact the way that students understand the nation’s past and present.
“You can’t understand contemporary divisions without understanding their histories,” Grossman said. “You can’t cure a disease without understanding its pathology.”
There are bound to be disagreements over aspects of the 1619 Project, Grossman said, but no one is suggesting that it replace all other elements of social studies and history curricula. Rather, the initiative is a supplement – one that invites students to think more critically about how the nation came to be and where to go from here, he said.