Teaching with New York Times 1619 Project

In August, the Zinn Education Project team, like many educators in our network, scrambled to secure copies of The 1619 Project.

The multiplatform effort by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times highlights the fundamental role slavery played in the United States’ development by commemorating the year in which the first enslaved Africans were brought to the new Virginia colony.

Featuring essays on slavery’s intimate entanglement with U.S. capitalism, health care, politics, cities, food, and music, as well as poetry and fiction by Clint Smith, Jesmyn Ward, Eve L. Ewing, and others, the 1619 Project persuasively affirms that the consequences of slavery — and the contributions of Black people — should be central to any story the United States tells about itself.

We agree.

Below you will find several classroom-tested people’s history lessons and articles on slavery’s central role in U.S. history, its legacies, and the activists who ended it.

  • In The Color Line lesson, investigate how social elites encoded racial division in colonial laws to divide people who, if acting collectively, might threaten the status quo.
  • Through role-play, upend the traditional narrative of the Constitutional Convention by including the perspectives of workers, enslaved people, and poor farmers, alongside those of the real participants — the white wealthy elite.
  • Ask students to grapple with the startling fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery as Clarence Lusane explains in this If We Knew Our History column.
  • In The Poetry of Defiance, surface the many ways — creative, brave, bold, subversive, everyday, and extraordinary — that enslaved people resisted their own subjugation.
Black Abolitionists (Profile) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Black abolitionists

  • Bring to life the politics of anti-slavery and Reconstruction by asking students to consider both the dilemmas faced and radical possibilities carved out by activists during the 19th century. Critical to both of these efforts were Black abolitionists.
  • The 1866 Civil Rights Act intended to prohibit policies that perpetuated the conditions of slavery for African Americans; it said that formerly enslaved people had the right to “purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.” Yet, this role play, based on Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America shows how government policies denied African Americans their constitutionally protected rights to fair housing and segregated every major city in the United States.
  • In How to Make Amends: A Lesson on Reparations students examine more than a dozen different reparative policies to help clarify their own beliefs about the appropriate context, goal, and form of reparations for historical injustices like slavery and genocide.
Reparations Now Social Crop | Zinn Education Project

Demanding reparations for police torture, members of the Chicago Light Brigade, Project NIA, and Chicago Torture Justice Memorials protest outside of Rahm Emanuel’s home in 2015. Source: Kelly Hayes.

Teaching a Peoples History of Abolition and the Civil War (Book Cover) | Zinn Education Project

Rethinking Schools’ newest book, Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, edited by Adam Sanchez, encourages students to take a critical look at the popular narrative that centers Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and ignores the resistance of abolitionists and enslaved people. The book’s classroom-tested lessons help students understand how ordinary citizens — with ideas that seem radical and idealistic — can challenge unjust laws, take action together, pressure politicians to act, and fundamentally change society.

The 1619 Project has invigorated the ongoing conversation about the central role of the institution of slavery in U.S. history and its legacy today. Let’s keep the conversation going by filling the gaps of what the Project does not address:

  • When teaching about the enslavement of Africans, it is vital to start with pre-colonial African history. Our colleagues at Africa Access provide a carefully vetted list of books and other resources.
  • Although 1619 marks the first arrival of enslaved Africans in the English speaking colonies, their presence in what is now the United States began much earlier as is explained in “The Fallacy of 1619: Rethinking the History of Africans in Early America” by Michael Guasco. He also adds that it is important to remember that the English were also newcomers. “Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah.”
  • Trail of Tears 1839

    Trail of Tears 1839. Painting: “Forced Move” by Max Standley courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.

    The 1619 Project describes slavery as America’s original sin. That is true. But it wasn’t the only one. There was also the closely related sin of the genocide and removal of Native American nations, a history that is closely intertwined with the history of slavery in the United States. For example, the vast lands of cotton and tobacco plantations were only “available” because of the forced removal of Native Americans. Students can learn about that history with the lesson, The Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play.

The 1619 Project’s insistence that enslaved people’s lives and contributions be centered in the U.S. narrative matches the Zinn Education Project approach to history which emphatically affirms: ordinary people matter. Help us continue to offer free people’s history curriculum that, like the 1619 Project, counters the boring, inaccurate, and dangerous corporate textbook version of history.

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