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University Professor asks NYT to correct 1619 project

NYT Magazine declines to make changes despite joint letter from five history professors

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Professor Emeritus of History Gordon Wood P’86 co-wrote a letter to the editor requesting a correction to the New York Times Magazine’s acclaimed 1619 Project with four other professors from different universities. In response, through a public letter, New York Times Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein defended the project’s reporting and declined to correct it.

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative that began last August with the purpose of reframing United States history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” according to the magazine. The project began as a special edition of the magazine comprising a series of 14 essays and a podcast, as well as a free curriculum package for middle and high schools.

Wood co-authored the letter with four other history professors from Texas State University, Princeton University and the City University of New York.

The professors realized their ideas were aligned when they convened on the World Socialist Web Site, which first published each professor’s thoughts on the project separately. The group of scholars then chose to collaborate in writing a letter to the editor, concerned that an institution with the scope of the New York Times was publishing a project the professors viewed as containing factual errors, according to Wood.

Wood said that if the project had included only the essays and podcast, the professors “wouldn’t have bothered” to write the letter. But Wood and the other four professors — cognizant of the great visibility of the New York Times — viewed their intention to distribute a curriculum based on the project in schools as “a mistake” because of its potential to misinform a wide audience, he explained.

“We are not opposed to the idea of teaching about slavery — that’s important,” Wood said. “But if you are going to have mistakes, major errors in the proposal, we would find that would be embarrassing for the Times.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine reporter and architect of the project, said she was frustrated by the approach the professors took to criticize the project. She said that she was “not made aware” that their letter was being published, adding that it was sent to her bosses and not to Hannah-Jones directly. She said she felt “disappointed” that the professors “did not just reach out to us and ask for corrections” if they felt something was truly wrong with the project. Instead, by “circulating a letter and trying to get a lot of historians to sign on to it,” the professors were trying to do “something bigger” than correct mistakes, Hannah-Jones said.

In an interview with The Herald, Wood contended that there were three errors in Hannah-Jones’ first essay of the project, one of the essays that launched the project Aug. 14, 2019. First, he disagreed with Hannah-Jones’ claim that one of the primary reasons the colonists declared independence from Britian was “to protect the institution of slavery.” Wood said there was “no evidence whatsoever” in the essay to support this claim.

“I don’t know of any colonists who said they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” Wood wrote in the letter to Silverstein.

Wood added that John Adams, whom he described as responsible for the Declaration of Independence, “hated slavery.”

Second, the letter stated that the project’s criticism of Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery was “misleading.” The five professors wrote that the project “ignores (Lincoln’s) conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for Blacks as well as whites” and ignores his agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.”

Third, Wood said that Hannah-Jones’ article fails to acknowledge the role that white abolitionists played in ending slavery.

“The whole abolition movement in the antebellum period was led by whites,” Wood said. “There needs to be some recognition of the white contribution to the movement which (Hannah-Jones) does not recognize.”

Hannah-Jones responded that this criticism by Wood and his colleagues amounted to disagreement with the project’s argument rather than a criticism of its factual accuracy. She said the professors were criticizing the project on the grounds that “we should have added more information or written something differently,” which she said differs from correcting factual errors.  “The third claim that I make in my essay is that Black people fought alone,” Hannah-Jones said, whereas the professors “want to point to the exception of white Americans who fought on behalf of Black civil rights, but that is not a factual claim.”

Hannah-Jones said the project was not meant to include every aspect of the history of slavery. Instead, it included the information relevant to the essay’s specific argument.

“Friedrick Douglass isn’t in this piece, Martin Luther King isn’t in this piece,” Hannah-Jones said. “It isn’t just white Americans and white contribution that isn’t in there; it was an essay stating four hundred years of history. I never intended it to be a comprehensive story of four hundred years of American history.”

Wood does not discredit the project and believes it should continue, but still regards the corrections noted in the letter as crucial.

Wood held that Hannah-Jones “should have consulted more people” in telling the project’s story.

Hannah-Jones said that she relied on the work of many scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Nicholas Guyatt to compile her claims.

“No historians have to agree with my interpretations, with the argument I am making,” Hannah-Jones said. To disagree with interpretation “is a normal part of historical debate, but I think the nature of (the professors’) effort is different” and more fundamental than a disagreement with argument, she added.

“When a historian writes ‘I wouldn’t have written that way,’ of course, every person is going to write things in their own way, and I am a journalist, not a historian — and that is something quite different than accusing the project of basically making up facts.”

In a statement emailed to The Herald, several University History faculty applauded the project.

“Acknowledging slavery’s centrality in American history is an endeavor that has long been crucial to the History Department and to Brown University in general,” according to the statement by University professors, which included: Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies Linford Fisher; Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies Françoise Hamlin; Assistant Professor of History Emily Owens; Associate Professor of History Seth Rockman; Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg; and Professor of American History, Professor of History and Department Chair Robert Self.

“Historical interpretation has always been political, especially when it comes to who gets to tell the national story,” they wrote.

“This is an issue that ultimately comes back to access and inclusion in the university, in mass media and in public life. Some people have platforms to make their version of the past more ‘true’ than other people’s versions; some voices are marginalized. The 1619 Project is an effort to center the Black experience in the national past, and reflects the findings of several generations of deep, well-documented research in African American history.”

One Comment

  1. Luther Spoehr says:

    It is worth reading Prof. Wood’s full comments on the 1619 Project. They can be found here: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/12/24/nytr-d24.html. From there, you can easily to link to other critiques by Civil War scholar James McPherson; civil rights scholar Clayborne Carson, editor of the MLK Papers; James Oakes, 2-time winner of the Lincoln Prize; and others.

    Done in interview format, their comments are models of historical argument.

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