January/February 2020 Issue
January 06, 2020

1619 Project explores U.S. history from African American perspective

Author: By Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
1619 project
Caption: Bellport TA President Wayne White, center, is using the 1619 Project in his AP U.S. History classes. Photo by Andrew Watson.

For most African-American students, classroom lessons about their heritage follow a well-worn path: slavery, freedom, the civil rights movement, the election of a black President, happily ever after.

But the history of African-Americans in the United States is much more complex. The nuances skimmed over in most classes downplay a history layered with pain, injustice, and even to the present day, inequality.

Wayne White, an AP U.S. History teacher at Bellport High School on Long Island, is helping his students learn the “rest of the story” by using the 1619 Project in his classes. The curriculum explores U.S. history from the perspective of African-Americans.

Begun as a series of essays, images, stories and poems in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine to mark the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, the project has since blossomed into a series of curriculums, guides and activities for teachers and students developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.

A major change is that 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to America, is viewed as the start of our nation’s history, rather than 1776.

“It shows how in many ways our history was whitewashed,” said White, president of the Bellport Teachers Association. “Telling the narrative from the point of view of African- Americans provides a continuity check, showing that while much has changed, many issues of race in our country remain the same.”

It’s a history rich with traditions, and the contributions of individuals who left marks far beyond the labor they were forced to contribute. The project shares the stories of men and women like Crispus Attucks, the first individual to die in the Revolutionary War; Hiram Revels, the first black man elected to the U.S. Senate in the reconstruction period following the Civil War; and Phillis Wheatley, a 20-year-old enslaved Boston woman who was the first African-American to publish a book of poetry.

The lesson plans use the NYT Magazine writings to explore the lasting connections between slavery and segregation with aspects of modern American society, from Atlanta traffic jams resulting from racially segregated neighborhoods, to the Tuskegee Study which denied medical treatment to hundreds of black men suffering from syphilis, and left many African- Americans wary of the medical establishment.

Teaching the curriculum has been eye opening for some students who “always assumed that if you work hard, you could succeed,” said White, a NYSUT Board member. Many never considered that African-Americans faced legal barriers to success such as red-lining, which limited their ability to secure mortgages or purchase homes and property in certain neighborhoods; or violent persecution when they did succeed, like the 1921 Tulsa race riots when mobs of white racists physically attacked and destroyed the property and businesses of wealthy black residents in what was then called “Black Wall Street.”

White considers the curriculum important because for too long, historians have glossed over the horrific impact of slavery on those enslaved and their descendants. “Half of black families during that time period were physically separated — how do you separate a child from a mother?” said White. “Learning what really happened and how it affects people can help change how we look at race. Awareness is the first step to destroying racism.”

Visit pulitzercenter.org/1619 for free 1619 Project curriculum guides and student activities.