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The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project

by William H. Benson

August 22, 2019

     A staff writer for The New York Times named Nikole Hannah-Jones came up with an idea for a series of essays that appeared in last Sunday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. She called it the 1619 Project. The year 1619 is not a date well known among Americans, and yet slavery in North America began 400 years ago this month, on an unknown day in August of 1619.

     In that month, between 20 and 30 African slaves stepped off an English pirate’s ship in chains and shuffled into Jamestown, in Virginia, where English land owners purchased them to work their tobacco fields. African slaves would toil for free on North American soil for the next 250 years.

     Jamestown was then only 12 years old. The Pilgrims would not land at Plymouth Rock for another year, and the first Puritans would not land at what became Boston for another 11 years, in 1630. At that moment, in 1619, America incorporated slavery into its history, into its very DNA. 

     A Portuguese slave trader had stolen these 20+ slaves from their homes in what is today Angola, in southwestern Africa, weeks before, but English pirates had attacked the Portuguese slave ship on the high seas, confiscated the Africans, and then brought them to Point Comfort, near Jamestown.

     The Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to initiate the capture and transport of African slaves to the Americas. Because landowners needed laborers to work their sugar fields in South and Central America, in the Caribbean Islands, and in Florida, they kidnapped millions of Africans.

     Now the stage was set for the English to carry forward and expand the global slave trade, because Virginia tobacco farmers now needed laborers, hundreds and then thousands of laborers.

     In the first essay, The Idea of America, Nikole Hannah-Jones provides a sobering series of statistics, first that Europeans captured some 12.5 million Africans and transported them to America, “the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War,” that millions failed to survive the gruesome journey, and that of the millions who did survive, some 400,000 arrived in North America.

     She mentions that slavery, as it adapted in North America, was commercial, but in addition, it was “racial, heritable, and permanent, not temporary.” Children born to slaves did not belong to their parents, but to their parents’ masters, who could sell them to other masters, splitting up families.

     “Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift, and disposed of violently.”   

     She points out that the British in England noted the hypocrisy among the British in the American colonies, at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Samuel Johnson in London, asked a question, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

     Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia in early December of 1775 from England and gaped in astonishment at the slave market going on just outside his door. He asked, “With what consistency, or decency, they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery; and annually enslave many thousands more?”  

     Nikole Hannah-Jones then jumps to the Civil War, to the year 1862, when Union forces were struggling to subdue the Southern Confederacy. On August 14, 1862, “President Abraham Lincoln called a group of five esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting.”

     The men walked in with some hope, but Lincoln dashed that little hope when he informed them that “he had convinced Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.”

     The President’s next words chilled them. “You and we are different races. Your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

     Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “You can imagine the heavy silence in that room, as the weight of what the president said stole the breath of these five black men.” Edward Thomas, the delegation’s leaders, promised the president that “they would consult on his proposition.”

     Lincoln said, “Take your full time. No hurry at all.”

     After the Civil War ended, when “four million black Americans were suddenly free,” a group of black leaders submitted a resolution against black colonization to Africa or to Haiti or to Panama. They said, “This is our home, and this is our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers. Here we were born, and here we will die.” They rejected Lincoln’s colonization proposal.

     Next time in these pages, we will consider the second essay in the 1619 Project, Matthew Desmond’s thoughts on Capitalism, and how King Cotton solidified slavery in the Southern states