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1619 Is A Pivotal Date In American History For Two Reasons


We look to history to help us understand who we are today. Yet history is also an imperfect, often inadequate record of events. Depending on who is depicting the past, certain truths go untold. That is indeed the lesson of 1619, a year that few people understood as significant in American and African-American history until nearly two years ago.

When the New York Times published the 1619 Project in August 2019, it marked the 400th anniversary since the first Africans arrived in a mainland English colony. Historians believe this group of captives arrived in Virginia as slaves aboard English privateer ships. 

They weren’t the first Africans to step foot on what would become America. That distinction appears to belong to an African man who accompanied the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León on an expedition to present-day Florida. While historians are uncertain about how the Africans who arrived in Virginia spent the remainder of their lives, it’s believed that some of them became the first of several hundred thousand slaves who would build the United States literally from the ground up. 

Conceived by Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project and its collection of essays made a sweeping, powerful argument that the significance of 1619 can “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.”

That premise prompted fierce criticism from some historians and conservatives who argued that the project mischaracterized facts and inaccurately portrayed America’s founding. The debate continues partly thanks to the Trump administration’s creation of the 1776 Commission as a rebuttal to the Times Magazine‘s project. That and other events have turned 1619 into a cultural flashpoint, one that some conservatives frequently invoke to describe all that is wrong with liberal thinking and politics. 

In that respect, 1619 is still teaching us more about who we are today. To better understand how that year defines America’s origins, the role of Black people in building the nation, and our current debate over systemic racism, here’s what you should know: 

Democracy and slavery rising

History lessons on America’s founding often focus on well-known dates, like the settlement of the first English colony in mainland America, in Virginia, in 1607, the arrival of the Mayflower Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and the American Revolution in 1776. 

The year 1619 belongs among these dates, said historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and author of 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.

“When you look at 1619, you’re looking at two fundamentally important events that shape American society for the next 400 years and will shape our society beyond,” Horn said. 

“[Y]ou’re looking at two fundamentally important events that shape American society for the next 400 years and will shape our society beyond.”

He believes that the Africans who disembarked from the ships were a group of about 30 enslaved people. Though another hundred years passed before chattel slavery became widespread in British America, the moment marks a turning point in the ascendance of slave labor in those mainland colonies as well as racist stereotypes that were already prevalent in parts of the New World where slavery was common. 

A few weeks prior to the Africans’ arrival in 1619, something else historic happened in Jamestown. Its residents convened a meeting of the first representative form of government in the Americas. Gathering in a church, representatives, the governor, and his councilors adopted principles of self-governance from the English Parliament and common law in order to apply them to Virginia, said Horn. 

The legislature, then a single-chamber body that doubled as the colony’s highest court, passed regulations and proposed laws. Those measures were then reviewed by the Virginia Company of London, which served as the colony’s governing body and financial backer, according to Horn. 

Critically, the representatives confirmed rights to private property, guaranteeing them through the law. Horn said this development — protecting “middling and small landowners from potential embezzlement by the rich and powerful” — was instrumental in creating a colony attractive to thousands of settlers. 

While the “Great Reforms” of 1619 didn’t come close to establishing a true democracy, Horn said they mark the beginning of democratic principles that eventually led to parliamentarian forms of government and rule of law in the American colonies. 

“The fundamental principles of modern democracy are established in 1619, in Virginia,” said Horn. 

Today, when we look at the promise of the first representative body in the Americas, followed by the arrival of the Africans and the ultimate rise of slavery, we see the great tension and heartbreak of the American experiment. At the time, however, Horn said no one would’ve questioned the contrast between people seeking self-governance and the use of indentured or slave labor. 

Indeed, the early representative system implemented in Jamestown ultimately became a tool that best served the interests of the wealthy, connected tobacco planters, said Horn. He believes that the rapid growth of the tobacco economy “fatally undermined” the reforms of 1619 because planters came to rely so heavily on cheap, widely available indentured servant labor, and then decades later, on slave labor. 

The contrast between the founding of representative government in 1619, well before the American Revolution in 1776, and the limited introduction of slavery in the colonies is what makes 1619 such a compelling year to study. 

Who was Angela? 

Between 2017 and 2019, the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the National Park Service conducted an archeological investigation at the site of the first Virginia settlement in an effort to answer a question with important ramifications: Who was Angela? 

The answer is central to both American and African-American history, because Angela, whose birth name is unknown, was one of the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619. At the time, the settlement had no definitive laws that sanctioned slavery; they were considered private property and thus owners were protected by related laws. By the early 1660s, Virginia began passing laws that stripped away any human rights slaves would’ve enjoyed, according to Horn.

‘For the first time, I can look at history from the point of view that I was in it, I was part of it.'” 

Horn, who participated in the investigation that excavated the plantation where Angela lived, assumes that she was young. Africans captured for the slave trade were younger, and those who survived the brutal trans-Atlantic journey often did so because of their age. 

In 1622, Angela also survived a famine and Powhatan Indian attack that killed hundreds of colonists. 

In 1624 and 1625, Angela shows up in an official Census as “Angelo,” an enslaved member of the household of a wealthy planter-merchant. By 1626, however, she disappears from official records and never resurfaces. 

Horn said that historians focus on Angela’s fate for two reasons: They know a little about where she came from, and what happened after she arrived in Virginia. Angela was abducted from a kingdom in the country we now know as Angola, in the broader context of brutal colonial wars that pitted the Portuguese against African kingdoms, according to Horn. Angela is also the only named African for which historians have an “indisputable place of residence.” 

“At Jamestown, we focused on Angela to translate these vast forces and their impact into human terms: what was it like for Angela, how did she cope, what did she miss most, how did she adapt?” wrote Horn in a follow-up email. “We can’t answer these questions but we can ask them.”

Though the investigation isn’t finished yet, Horn said the excavation site plays an important role Black history in America. While there are certainly other sites where the first Africans lived in 1619 and beyond, they haven’t been discovered. 

“It is a place people can come to reflect on the history of themselves, of the people of Africa,” said Horn. “That, to me, is important.” 

He witnessed this firsthand: “There were African-American people coming to the site saying, ‘For the first time, I can look at [this] history from the point of view that I was in it, I was part of it.'” 

WATCH: How to *hypothetically* take down a racist statue

Re-framing history

Hannah-Jones’ essay in the 1619 Project has a similar effect by drawing the reader’s attention to the Africans who were the first of many generations of Black people who lifted the country on their enslaved shoulders to make it what it is today. 

In just over 250 words, she catalogues the things slave labor produced, including: acres upon acres of land cleared to grow crops, which slaves then picked and harvested as commodities and exports that made America rich; the properties and plantations that housed men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; the foundations of the White House and Capitol; and, the wooden tracks that became the railroads connecting the North and South. 

But Hannah-Jones argues that Black Americans didn’t just build an economy that ultimately made the United States into a superpower; they also made America a true democracy, even if white supremacists, both in principle and practice, have tried mightily to prevent them from doing so. 

“Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals,” she wrote. “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.”

“Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.”

Critics argued that Hannah-Jones’ reframing of 1619, that it figuratively constitutes America’s true founding, went too far and was unsupported by the facts. 

Led by the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a small group of historians wrote a letter in late 2019 to the New York Times detailing their concerns. Among other things, they argued that Hannah-Jones was wrong to suggest that colonists wanted to declare their independence from Britain, which had begun to oppose slavery, in order to protect slavery in America. While the language in the 1619 Project was amended to clarify that some but not all colonists shared that motivation, the Times stood by the project and has continued to do so in a subsequent editor’s note and update

Yet there were more than good faith concerns and disagreements. After the Times and Pulitzer Center released curriculum based on the 1619 Project to help educators teach slavery and its long-reaching effects, some conservatives saw it as a form of indoctrination designed to make readers loathe America for its failings. Last summer, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton introduced legislation that would prevent the use of federal spending on the teaching materials. 

“Curriculum is a matter for local decisions and if local left-wing school boards want to fill their children’s heads with anti-American rot, that’s their regrettable choice,” Cotton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “But they ought not to benefit from federal tax dollars to teach America’s children to hate America.” 

A number of Republican state senators in states like Iowa, Mississippi, and South Dakota are similarly looking to punish schools financially if they use the curriculum. 

Before losing his re-election bid, President Trump formed the 1776 Commission as a nationalist response to the 1619 Project that would promote “patriotic education.” 

“[T]he reason that it’s become part of the culture wars is, you know, the 1619 Project makes an argument that slavery is foundational to American life. And it really looks at modern America and traces back the legacy,” Hannah-Jones told NPR last September. “It’s clear that Donald Trump has decided that he is going to run his reelection campaign on stoking racial division. And because this was a major project in The New York Times that has gotten a lot of attention, he sees this as one of the tools in the arsenal of that fight.”

The report released by the commission in January was widely assailed by scholars for falsehoods and distortions about pivotal moments in American history. 

“It’s a hack job. It’s not a work of history,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told The Washington Post. “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.”

The commission was disbanded by President Joe Biden, and the report was removed from the White House website. 

From its publication in 2019 to the outrage that continues to simmer in 2021, the 1619 Project is an example of what’s revealed when we re-examine history and ask questions of who gets to tell which stories, and how. 

The year itself is a date of unique consequence in American and African-American history. If you spend enough time reflecting on the profound contradictions it contains, it’ll likely reveal something important about what America means to you.



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