Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

College Race-Role Immersion Game Controversy

In May, a controversy over a college role-immersion game went public. The game is part of Reacting to the Past. The specific application is the Frederick Douglass game set in 1845. That game has now been pulled. At this point, I am not sure if the controversy has subsided or if it is simply the end of the semester and the Memorial Day holiday weekend when people have better things to do than blog.


Back in August 2014, I read a review by Steven Mintz, University of Texas, of this new book by Mark Carnes, Barnard College. I printed the review because of its storytelling basis. As a longtime proponent that we are a storytelling species and that history museums should use stories more to convey the history of their site, naturally I was intrigued by this collegiate approach. I never did get around to writing a blog about it and now I will do so.

The issue the games sought to address is the lack of engagement by college students in the history material being presented in class. The proposed solution was a collaborative game that immersed students in the historical situation being studied. The book reviewer began by reporting on problems being experienced in the undergraduate experience at that time. Specifically the failure to set students’ “minds on fire” was cited.

The proposed remedy from Carnes was to “tap the motivational power of play.” The reviewer noted the intensity, competitiveness, and subversive elements of play according to Carnes. The immersive games could “shock us out of sheep-like passivity.”  Possibly his use of film in the classroom contributed to his undertaking this new application. In 1995, he launched “Reacting to the Past.” Students debated fundamental issues from pivotal historical episodes by assuming roles informed by classic texts. By 2014, over 350 institutions used the game.

For the game to succeed, faculty needed to step back from their traditional professorial persona and allow the classroom to be student-run. Instructors were guides on the side and not sages on the stage. They were umpires watching the game play out before them. The book presented Carnes’ proof that after nearly 20 years, the approach worked. Student engagement, motivation, and familiarity increased along with the development of empathy. Essentially, they were not simply walking a mile in someone’s shoes, they were speaking with someone’s mouth and therefore learning how that person thought.

The reviewer responded positively to the “promoting students’ affective development, interpersonal skills. Moral reasoning, and psychological maturation…in cultivating cognitive growth.” Empathy and community ranked high on the skills developed.

Yes, there were the issues of forcing students to speak publicly and to defend ideas contrary to their own. Overall, the reviewer accepted that rigorous external assessments indicated that gamification works for highly diverse subpopulations of students including recent immigrants and students struggling with the English language.

The review concluded with:

I hope that historians will carry away certain essential lessons from Carnes’s book: That students often learn more when instructors teach less; that classroom competitions can often instill a sense of community; that students better understand themselves when they assume the identity of historical actors; and that students’ moral reasoning strengthens most when they must wrestle with ethical dilemmas without a teacher’s intervention. Carnes’s most important message, however, is the one faculty find easiest to forget: That a college education is not about the instructor’s intelligence, insights, or eloquence; it should be about student learning.

Times were more innocent in 2014.


In the May 14, 2022, print edition of the Wall Street Journal this article was published with the title “Slavery Role-Playing Lesson for Colleges Taken Off Market” (Douglas Belkin). The online version added the subtitle: “Reacting to the Past [the Company] removed its Frederick Douglass game from print after concerns at some of the 500 schools that use its historic debate series”.

The action was taken in response to concerns expressed by students and professors who objected to advocating for white supremacy in the playing of the game. I do not know what all the 30 available games are, but this one with Frederick Douglass is the one that sparked the controversy. This game has as many as 75 characters including Sojourner Truth and Robert E. Lee. About 1000 copies per year are sold making it one of the bestsellers. However, according to Nicolas Proctor, editorial board director, in an email to one of the game’s co-creators:

Racist speech can easily create an unsafe environment. It “can be demoralizing and triggering, particularly for African-American students.

The co-creators declined the request to make changes in response to the complaints:

They are scared to death of confronting racism in American history because it could blow up in their face. They want to rework it and take out all the controversy and leave it as a viable game but there is no way to do that.

This was the reply of Mark Higbee, history professor at Eastern Michigan University and co-creator of the game along with James Brewer Stewart, professor emeritus at Macalester College.

The article concludes with the example from the class of Mark Thompson, California State University. The student is David Castillo who describes himself as white, Mexican and Japanese. In the game, he portrays a New York City dockworker who disapproves of both slavery and Black people. His character also thinks women shouldn’t express an opinion. In the game, he interrupts classmates playing Black people by calling them animals. He urges women to shut up.

Castillo acknowledges that he was initially a little uncomfortable insulting his classmates but likes the game because he thinks it forces students to think about points of view that they may not have previously considered and with which they don’t agree.

The central question of the game is to ask yourself, ‘How can these characters believe what we can’t believe they believe?’”

One might add learning how one can believe the election was stolen, COVID is a hoax, and the vaccines are worse than the fake virus or vice versa depending on your point of view.


Ironically, the first reaction I read was from a professor who had not used the game. Jack McKivigan, is the editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. He asked for student volunteers to read Douglass’ texts as part of the biannual Douglass symposium held on campus. He was met with a “well-organized and effective boycott.” He concluded,

There may be a growing discomfort to even acknowledge the embedded racism in our nation’s history that goes beyond current political correctness debates. Removing one-half of the history of racism as Reacting to the Past seems to be doing could very well lead to erasing the other-half in the interests of keeping our (white) students guilt-free and comfortable–or better, “comfortably numb.” (May 13, 2022)

 As we know from the 1619 and CRT controversies, white people object to “divisive” curriculum that disparages them on the basis of their race.

McKivigan’s comment led to a response by co-creator of the Douglass game, James Stewart (May 14, 2022):

The final sentence of your disturbing post captures perfectly my deepest concern about the decision to cancel Mark Higbee’s and my FREDERICK DOUGLASS, THE CONSTITUTION AND THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY– In this case the fact that fully credentialed historians unilaterally cancelled the scholarship and pedagogy of their colleagues and peers because, as one such censor put it, it addresses the problem of slavery (this is the literal quote) “too forthrightly”.—- .

How, one might ask, can historians stand strong against the likes like Ron DeSantis let alone enlighten “comfortably numb” students if they willingly censor themselves, or worse still, one another?

After another round of exchanges and the mass murder in Buffalo, Stewart wrote:

At the same time my approach to student Fragility/ Intractability has always been to stand my ground and insist that the “tough stuff” (quote from the late, much lamented James O. Horton) must be confronted as honestly and amply as possible. If I fail to convince them, it’s on them, not me to defend their beliefs right there, on the spot, in class. And if that leads to complaints to higher ups, that’s just fine by me. Serious change requires conflict that generates heat as well as light. Just as was the case for the original abolitionists, it’s controversy, not concessions, that moves us forward.

At this point, Mark Carnes chimed in (May 20, 2022):

Proctor explained that the chief issue for the REB concerned the voicing of pro-slavery positions by students. “Racist opinions must figure in any historical account of the antebellum era,” he observed, “but the Board maintained that we should not require students to voice the idea that slavery benefited enslaved peoples, or that people of African descent are inherently inferior to whites.”

 “The Reacting pedagogy seeks to put students in the shoes of historical figures, even those whose views students may find disagreeable or even repugnant. This sharpens critical thinking skills and promotes historical empathy,” Proctor added. “The editorial board believes that the Douglass game is powerful, but that it needs to provide more scaffolding and more options so that instructors and students can engage with these ideas in ways that do not have the potential for serious harm.”

The co-creators replied to this explanation. Be warned that they pulled no punches.

That’s because (much to our surprise) it [your explanation] buttresses our conclusion that your decision was driven by fears of White fragility, Black backlash and White supremacist manipulation.

 Cut through your explanations of bureaucratic decision making (and the promotion of your Reacting book series) and your account confirms what we already know…You cancellers were to become our peer reviewers!  Predictably, we walked away from your offer.

 Why such adamancy and inflexibility on your part? Because, as messages to us from your close colleague Nick Proctor make clear, you feared that our book’s antiracist pedagogy “can create an unsafe environment…[be] demoralizing and triggering particularly for African American students…. May provide an avenue of attack by racist revisionists….” In short, you silenced us because our pedagogy is, in your “politically correct” view, excessively antiracist.

Finally, in your post you quote your associate Nick Proctor’s statement that “The [Reacting to the Past Editorial ] Board maintained that we should NOT REQUIRE STUDENTS to voice the idea that slavery benefited enslaved peoples, or that people of African descent are inherently inferior to whites.”

 We state categorically that our pedagogy DOES NOT REQUIRE students to voice proslavery opinions. Those who elect do so are volunteers, not conscripts. Proctor’s claim to the contrary is patently untrue. You can consult our book to confirm this for yourself.

The exchange ends (for now) with a zinger from co-creator Mark Higbee (May 23, 2022):

But the RTTP bureaucracy lacks transparency and accountability to anyone outside of its little circle.

 These are facts: 

1. This decision to cancel the very successful Douglass book was NOT based on any data, but on fears of what “may” happen when students & instructors use the book. (If Drs. Carnes & Proctor had data, they would have provided it when Jim and I asked for it.).
2. The RTTP leadership’s decision to cancel Douglass is arrogantly meant to violate the academic freedom of Reacting instructors, because it’s meant to deny them the opportunity to use the book in class. 
3. Jim and I will update the book, with another, braver publisher. This will take time!  Meanwhile, instructors have our permission to photocopy the book for their students!   Email me for Characters/roles for your class, at (Or even for a copy of the existing book). …
5. All that has changed [since 2019] is that some in academia are more cowardly when it comes to confronting racism in classrooms on campus. Sadly RTTP is now controlled by such people, who oppose anti-racist pedagogy.
6. Lastly, please know that this cancellation of a successful book is an extraordinary act by the sponsors of an academic book series. It was unexpected, out of the blue. No complaints about the book had been expressed to Jim or me since its publication in 2019, until Feb. 15, 2022. Not by RTTP leaders or the book’s users in classrooms across the country. Reacting instructors defended the book, but were ignored.

Frederick Douglass will continue to advance the cause of equality and education!

On this defiant none, the exchanges ceases. The story is not yet over.

The fight over the teaching of history has not ceased. It will continue to grow and fester as we approach the 250th anniversary of the birth of this country. Of course by the time that date arrives, the two sides may have withdrawn to their separate corners, i.e., countries.

Indians Owned Africans: How Do You Teach This History?

“You never saw such a people in your life. Their manners and action are wild in the extreme. They are in a perfect state of nature and would be a curiosity to any civilized man.”

“At that time the Indians did not have anything but small farms, and of course the freedmen were reared among them, so they didn’t work like they should but just raised enough corn to make their bread.”

“The Negro is more like the white man than the Indian in his tastes and tendencies and disposition to accept civilization. The Indian rejects our civilization. It is not so with the Negro. He loves you and remains with you, under all circumstances, in slavery and in freedom.”

“The peopling of the national domain with an enterprising, intelligent and hardy race of emigrants—transforming the savage wilderness into flourishing civilized communities, multiplying new States, and adding immensely to the wealth and productive industry of the Nation…[would] extend the area of Freedom [and] would increase the power of the North and West—the power of the people—would menacingly the perpetuity of the institution of slavery and the Democratic slaveholding aristocracy built upon it.”

What do you make of these four quotations? How judgmental are you? Should the people who wrote these words be cancelled? Should they be taught in our schools? What do you do if actual history does not comport with your preferred way of understanding the past?

The first quotation comes future Choctaw Nation chief Peter Pitchlynn in 1828 about his visit to Indian Territory, now eastern Oklahoma. He was scouting the lands the Five Tribes or Civilized People, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, would be relocated to in what became known as the Trail of Tears. When he encountered the people already living there he reacted in accordance with the Myth of the Empty Land (The Myth of the Empty Land: Creating a National Narrative). As a civilized person, meaning one used to a settled life of agriculture and writing, Pitchlynn saw wild people who to all intents and purposes were savages. This meeting of Plains Indians and the Choctaw may not conform to expectations but it really happened in history: when the Indigenous People of the southeast encountered the Indigenous people of Indian Territory they saw uncivilized wild people living in a perfect state of nature who would be a curiosity to any civilized person (as in suitable for museum display). Such encounters are typical of the human experience when an agricultural society (Neolithic) and a nomadic society (Paleolithic) society meet. The latter are always considered savage by the former.

The second quotation comes from Blain Holman, Chickasaw freedman who had lived among the Choctaw. He was referring to events following the Treaty of 1866. In that treaty, the victorious Union obligated the independent Five Tribes to emancipate their slaves and later to provide individual allotments of 40 acres to them. The Union forced this action on the Indian Nation, a foreign country or dependent nation per the Supreme Court. Such an action may be considered unjust regardless of what you think of the terms. The Cherokee had emancipated its slaves in 1863 but we will never know what the other Tribes would have done on their own without the Union intervention. Based on traditional Myth of the Empty Land, Indians did not own land the way Europeans and Americans did so it was permissible to take it and allot it to individuals. Holman was disparaging the lack of productive use of the allotted land.

The third quotation comes from Frederick Douglass. He opined what could be considered a white view towards the Indian. He was attempt to secure a more privileged position for the Negro in the social hierarchy in this ranking of the different peoples.

The fourth quotation also is from Frederick Douglass. Here he expands on the previous sentiments. It is an expression of progress.

Meantime a changed circumstance had occurred in Indian Territory. With the allotment of individual parcels to the freed Africans, the area began to draw similar people from elsewhere in the country. During the 1880s and 1890s, the word spread about the success of the Indian Freed People as the wealthiest Negroes in the United States. One result was the creation of black towns. Many of the founders of these black towns and the editors of its newspapers expressed similar views to those espoused by Douglass. The city of Tulsa grew out of these developments until it became the wealthy Wall Street of the Indian Freedmen and African migrants from elsewhere in America. The centennial of its destruction is only days away.

Combined, these four quotations expose the complexity of history. One oppressed people can oppress another people. One victim of settler colonialism can practice the very same on another people when given the opportunity to do so. History can be problematical. Are we ready to wrestle with troubling truths?

So asked Alaina Roberts, author of I’ve Been Here All the While, at the conclusion of her online presentation on May 6, 2021, for the American Philosophical Society. Only because of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 crisis was I able to see this talk. The four quotations, historical information, and terms come from her talk.

Roberts herself is a self-acknowledged mixed Indian-African person and her African family was owned by Chickasaw and Choctaw. The Indian Removal Act is a foundation story for the Five Tribes. Frequently overlooked are the African slaves who also made the journey. Another overlooked event was the effect these Five Tribes had on the native Plains People. They were dispossessed when the newcomers from the southeast arrived and the newcomers now became the new native peoples. As noted, Roberts drew attention to the Union imposing its will on the independent Indian Nations. For Roberts, the question she asks about wrestling with these troubling truths is both an academic challenge and a personal one her given her ancestry.

While the Freedman are Americans, are they also citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes? The answer for the Cherokee Nation is “yes” but only as of 2017 after much legal action. For the other four Indian Nations, the Freedmen are not recognized on full citizens. Sometimes the impact is practical. Certain Federal programs such as in housing or vaccinations only apply to members of the individual Indian nations. Sometimes the issue involves rights and heritage – the now Freedman have been part of the history of the Five Civilized Indian Nations for two centuries. Their histories are intertwined geographically, biologically, and culturally but not always legally or politically. The struggle is ongoing.

One must add to the conclusion of Hamilton the musical of “who will tell the story” what story will you tell? Roberts interview with CNN concluded with the comment:

“It has made me realize that this is still an issue, and that we need to talk about racism and prejudice as it is in all of our communities, and not just the White community.”

Cancel Frederick Douglass: Where Do You Stand on Purifying American History?

A statue of Frederick Douglass has been ripped from its base in Rochester on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches. (Credit: WHEC)

July is Frederick Douglass’s time of year. Around July 4 every year multiple history organizations have a reading of the Douglass speech of July 5, 1852, delivered in Rochester entitled “What to the slave is the fourth of July.” Even descendants may voice the words of their illustrious ancestor. This year, many of the recitations were online [I received many announcements] so there was ample opportunity to listen to a slew of speeches. Nonetheless, despite the venerated stature in which he is held, his statues must be judged by the same Woke standards that have led to the toppling of so many other statues so far this year. An examination of his record shows conclusively that he was not pure and deserves the fate of other former heroes.


Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)

This comment by Douglass has been used before in these blogs (Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted). It contradicts one of the most sacred myths within the BLM and Woke movements: the belief that Middle Passage people were stolen from Africa. Douglass knew the real story and expressed it. None-the-less, there is no excuse for telling the unacceptable and uncomfortable truth. Douglass needs to be held accountable for this impurity. STRIKE ONE.

Now consider the word used to describe the African sellers of Africans to Europeans: “savages.” Is this the type of word that is acceptable under Woke standards? Far from it. There is a series on National Geographic called “Savage Kingdom.” It’s not about people.

Brave New World, a TV version premiered on the NBCUniversal on July 15, also has a “savage” component. One of the novel’s worlds is the “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico. The people and customs of the Savage Reservation are said to be modeled loosely on the traditions of Zuñi.

In a recent online “Conversation” offered by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) (July 9), Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, anthropologist, historian and cultural consultant, voiced his displeasure over a plaque in Sante Fe. The objection was not to the any image or statue but to the word used to describe the Apaches. The word was “savage.” The participant said if there was one change he would like to make it is to that sign and that word.

In another recent online presentation, “Foundations for Teaching and Learning about Native Americans” by the National Museum of the American Indian (July 21), the word “savage” was featured as a derogatory term in primary sources and in textbooks. There can be no excuse for Douglass using that term even if the people referred to weren’t American. The word is unacceptable. STRIKE TWO.

Freedman’s Memorial

The Freedman’s Memorial in Washington has been a source of contention in the current quest to purify American history.  It depicts Abraham Lincoln standing above a kneeling freed black man. President Ulysses S. Grant, the cabinet and the Supreme Court were in attendance. This blog is not about the Memorial itself but about Douglass’s legitimation of it by speaking at the dedication. He delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of original statue on April 14, 1876, 11 years after the assassination of Lincoln. At that time, Douglass asked listeners to look through the eyes of enslaved people seeking freedom:

Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him.

See how Douglass is making allowances for the impurity of Lincoln. See how he is asking us to judge the person in the context of times, to examine him in his entirety, to measure him not by one’s standards of today but to stand back and see the totality of the person. These admonitions are intolerable and inexcusable. Either you are pure or you are not. So what if Douglass had misgivings about the statue. So what if he wanted a second statue to be erected. He was there at the dedication and spoke then. There can be no context, no nuance, no looking at the life of a person in the world in which he lived. If you are not pure then you are toppled, cleansed, erased. No excuses. No exemptions.  Not for Jefferson. Not for Lincoln. Not for Douglass. STRIKE THREE. YOU ARE OUT.

WHOOPS. When I Initially thought of writing this blog, I intended to stop here. However, I became aware of a counteraction to the effort to cleanse Douglass from American history due to his impurity. I received this notice describing a contrary position:

Help Erect a Statue of Frederick Douglass to Commemorate his 1870 Visit

To celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment in August of 1870, Frederick Douglass spoke at Washington’s Headquarters and the AME Zion Church in Newburgh and led the crowd on a peaceful march through the city. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary, money is being raised to commission a statue commemorating Frederick Douglass’ famous visit. The committee is asking for members of the public to donate to the cause. Can you spare $15 in appreciation of the 15th Amendment?

This group in Orange County, NY, attests that despite the Douglass violations of Woke standards, he still is regarded as a heroic person. My Spidey sense tells me that the American public is not likely to impose Woke standards on Douglass either. He will be viewed as an individual human being and measured on that basis. I suspect that consensus extends to other Americans who helped create this country or acted to fulfill its vision. So I conclude that statues of Douglass will not be toppled.

WHOOPS AGAIN. Even as I was planning this conclusion the blog, a statue of Douglass in Rochester was toppled on July 5. The fact that it was a 7-foot plastic replica made to look like the bronze of the 25-foot original bronze statue located elsewhere in the city doesn’t change the action…it does make it easier to understand how the topplers could drag it 50 feet!  The people responsible for this extralegal act have not been identified nor have they identified themselves. Was it Woke people judging Douglass as impure who took the law into their own hands as is their wont? Or was it anti-Woke people engaged in payback. If you commit an extralegal act to topple my statue, then you have granted me a license to commit an extralegal act against your statue.  The Woke now have unleashed the right of all people to act against statues based on their own values.

It’s easy to see where this will end. The BLM paints its name on streets in prominent places. The anti-BLM cover up the painting. Back and forth it goes including in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan. Now everyone can claim a license to topple, a license to paint. Where will it end?  Which incident will be the American Sarajevo? Which one will be the new Fort Sumter? Which one will elevate the current culture war to the next level as America’s Third Civil War ratchets up? Just as no one knew that it would be George Floyd that provided the spark, no one knows which confrontation will turn fatal. [Note: this was written before the attempt to occupy Portland.]

WHOOPS AGAIN AGAIN. Even as I was still planning this blog, something else happened in this very fluid situation.  According to the article in my local paper “New Douglas Statue Erected,” a new statue was erected on July 18 replacing the one which had been toppled on July 5. According to the caption of the photograph it was a “reinstallment” of the toppled statue. It was one of the replicas held in storage making it easy to replace the toppled one. The reinstallation was a community action in the light of day and not a toppling in the dark of night. This open action probably provides a better sense of where the community in Rochester stands…with the statue!

Where does that leave us today? According to David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), in an interview with the New-York Historical Society (June 25, 2020):

… Douglass was a patriot. In my book, I call him a radical patriot. He deeply believed in the first principles of the Declaration of Independence—equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and the right of revolution. He believed in the creeds and principles; it was the practices that he fought against. Douglass believed the preserved and re-invented U.S. that emerged out of the Civil War and emancipation had given the nation and all of its people the opportunity to create a multi-racial, multi-religious country. He saw America as an idea—a nation made up of all the peoples of the earth, living under equality before the law.

According to Blight in an earlier interview at the New-York Historian Society (January 11, 2020), Douglass saw America as a place with some kind destiny on some of kind trajectory in history designed by the divine. What’s next? American exceptionalism? America as a City on a Hill? Is there really a place in a Woke society for someone like that?

Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted

The New York Times Heats Up the Culture Wars (

Even without the coronavirus, the United States should not be celebrating July4th as its birthday according to The New York Times. In its Pulitzer-Prize winning Sunday Magazine issue entitled “1619” (August 18, 2019), The New York Times asks us to accept 1619 as the true birth year of the United States and not 1776 (see the blog The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community). It claims that a ship carrying “a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans” marks the country’s origins. It does so even though no country existed at that time and there weren’t even close to 13 British colonies then either.

As one might expect, there was a negative reaction to this publication. For the most part the NYT was able to swat away these responses. What was striking about them was that they were mostly about the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln. Hardly anyone commented on about the  attempt to redefine American history by having it originate not with the Declaration of Independence but with “original sin.”

In some ways the lack of comments on 1619 was not surprising – there was hardly anything written in the magazine about 1619! One would think that in a magazine with the title “1619,” there would be at least one article devoted to that topic. Instead it was almost absent save for a few stray comments here and there that mentioned 1619 in passing. The supplement contains more information. But if you really wanted to know about 1619, you are far better off reading the vastly superior account in USA Today [see my blog 1619: The New York Times versus USA Today (and Hamilton)].

There were a few comments that directly addressed the year in question. For example, Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University, wrote (How We Think about the Term ‘enslaved’ Matters):

Nell Irvin Painter

People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.

Enslavement was a process that took place step by step, after the mid-17th century. This process of turning “servants” from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws that decreed that a child’s status followed that of its mother and that baptism did not automatically confer emancipation. By the end of the 17th century, Africans had indeed been marked off by race in as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services. This was not already the case in 1619.

How come The New York Times didn’t know this? As you can see from Prof. Painter’s comments, the slavery system developed ad hoc over time as new situations occurred. For example, suppose someone was baptized, then what? Suppose someone had a white father and a black mother, then what? The system whereby 75% -white Sally Hemmings was legally both black and a slave did not exist in 1619. It took time for different combinations and circumstances to develop.

What then should be done to redress the shortcomings, omissions, and errors in the NYT’s publication? The answer is fairly straightforward. Have a conference or conferences to plug the gaps and provide the information that was to fit to print in “1619” but wasn’t. Specifically, there are 5 topics which should be covered by my count.

1. Where’s Africa?

According to a recent NYT note on the “1619” publication, an earlier draft by Nikole Hannah-Jones began the story earlier than July 4th and the American Revolution (“Telling ‘the Sweep of 400Years’,” June 18, 2020, print). It began with the Middle Passage where she wrote “They say our people were born on water.” I don’t know who “they” are in the sentence but that beginning would have been a step in the right direction. It’s still not Africa, but it’s closer. The phrase was used by Tiya Miles in “1619” who then mentions the Mbundu, Akan, and Fulani peoples. But the phrase ignores what the people of the Middle Passage brought with them from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. It’s as if the Middle Passage had “severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth.” The presence of the King of the Kongo at Pinkster celebrations demonstrates that not everything had vanished. What was this kingdom and why was its king remembered?

The story “out of Africa” should begin in Africa. If the focus is 1619, then the area of concern is the modern country of Angola. No such country existed in 1619 and no people there self-identified as “Angolans” then either. However it is the region that produced over 5 million of the 12 million people brought to the Western Hemisphere, especially Brazil, and was the source of people on the vessels that were captured by pirates and brought here. The study would explore the Kingdom of Kongo and the Mubundo and Imbangala peoples as they were the ones most involved in the slave trade. There are scholars with expertise in this subject who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on it.

2. Where’s Europe?

Similarly there is a story to be told about the Europeans who were involved in 1619. The key people are the Portuguese who arrived in Kongo in 1481. What were they doing there? How did it happen to be that the Portuguese were making the difficult voyage south along the African coast (going south was easy, it was the return north that was the challenge)? What did slavery mean in the European tradition? Why were owned people called “slaves” anyway? What was the geo-political situation at the time including Christian-Moslem and Protestant-Catholic? Why did the Dutch and the English get involved? These relationships are important. In 1491, the Kongo king voluntarily became Catholic beginning a long relationship between the independent country (not a colony) and the Church. In 1618, the Thirty Years War began which included the Kongo as well. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.

3. Where’s the Slave Trade?

How did the people who were brought to first the Atlantic Islands and Europe and then to the Western Hemisphere come to be brought to these areas? What were the mechanisms by which so many people could be brought to the Western Hemisphere by so few people? Miles uses the phrase “people stolen from western and central Africa.” This phrase expresses a popular explanation (see Roots):

Spike Lee: “just the fact that we were stolen from Mother Africa and brought here through the Middle Passage… (Time, June 22-29, 2020, print).

Other people take a different view.

Frederick Douglass:

Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)

Henry Louis Gates: The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred…. But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts. (Ending the Slavery Blame-Game, The New York Times, April 22, 2010).

Who is right? There are scholars with expertise in this subject who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on it.

4. Where’s Virginia?

As Prof. Painter’s comments on “1619” indicate, there is a story to be told about what happened in Virginia in the 1600s. The people who were legally free, though indentured, when they landed in Virginia, paved the way for the slavery system The New York Times took granted existed in 1619. That story would include the values the English settlers brought with them to Virginia including on slavery, free people, and servants. It includes the values of the English Puritans and Anglicans who settled in Virginia. It includes the values of small landholders and tobacco plantation owners in Virginia. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.

5. Where’s New Amsterdam?

The importance of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam is that it provides another example of a colony going through some of the same issues that occurred in Virginia at the same time. It does so with a different cultural background. New Amsterdam began as a trading port or merchant city that would become an “island at the center of the world.” Later on, it expanded northwards and created “manors” including here in Westchester where I live. The environment here was not conducive to tobacco. The church here was Dutch Reform and not Anglican or Puritan. I mention these points to suggest that the Virginia model, which itself required decades to finalize, is not the only model for understanding slavery in the colonial period. Virginia and New Amsterdam both struggled with the defining the meaning of slavery and the place of Africans in their respective colonies. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.

By coincidence, I just received an eblast from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture announcing an online conversation on “Slavery and Freedom in the Era of Revolution” focusing on abolitionism. The series of conversations will be based on The New York Times 1619 Project-related event “Slavery and the American Revolution: a Historical Dialogue” (March 6, 2020) held in New York involving several scholars.

I also just received a notice from the American Historical Association of a webinar to be held July 2 on “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” including Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, who participated in the March 6th event above.

Even in the time of Covid-19, it is possible to discuss topics such as the ones I listed above and there are organizations conducting similar type discussions. The issue is does anyone really want to know about 1619?

The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community

The New York Times Heats Up the Culture Wars (

2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the slavery of Africans in the British American colonies. A Federal commission was created in recognition of this event. The commission did not develop a national presence. Instead of leading a discussion on the event, it was confined to some local events in Virginia where the landing had occurred.

At the national level the most significant voice was that of The New York Times. The Sunday Magazine on August 18, the approximate anniversary date, was dedicated to The 1619 Project. According to a subsequent blurb, the issue sold out and additional copies were printed. A related podcast series was the most downloaded podcast in the United States. The Project has been turned into school curriculum with more than 3000 teachers saying they are using it. Copies were sent to over 500 schools in 91 cities and towns in 30 states. Over 200,000 free copies have been distributed to schools, libraries, museums and for various events. There is a book project underway.

All in all it is safe to say that The 1619 Project of The New York Times is a big deal. So what’s the problem?


There was a reaction of a different sort as well to this publication. Phillip W. Magness of The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) is maintaining a database of these responses at The 1619 Project Debate: A Bibliography last updated January 3, 2020. It would be a project in and of itself simply to report on these critiques. A great deal of attention in them is directed against the opening historical narrative written by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times entitled “The Idea of America” (this title does not appear in the print edition). She had suggested the creation of a dedicated issue on 1619 at a staff meeting in January, 2019. She then invited 18 scholars and historians to a meeting at The New York Times for a brain storming session.


In this blog instead of analyzing her historical narrative or the responses to it, I will focus my comments on the six-paragraph Editor’s Note by Jake Silverstein at the beginning of the Sunday Magazine. He also is the person who responded in December to the Letter to the Editor signed by five historians who were critical of certain parts of the project.

The two-page Editor’s Note begins with “1619.” in huge print spread across the pages. The opening lines are:

1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?

The claim is certainly an audacious one. It announces that the true birthday of the country should be celebrated when slavery began here and not with the Declaration of Independence. One may say that Silverstein’s use of the word “contradictions” is a way to claim that it is not the birthday of the nation that is at stake, just its “contradictions.” But then he would be comparing apples to oranges since the opening sentence specifically refers to “our nation’s birth.” The implication is that our true birth is in the contradictions and not in the declaring of our independence.


Still in the opening paragraph, Silverstein writes:

Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years.

I am not sure precisely what is meant by 250 years or 1869 as the concluding date. The 14th Amendment on citizenship and rights was ratified in 1868 so perhaps that is the 250th year. The number is significant as we are beginning the 250th anniversary celebration of America’s birthday in 1776. The Boston Massacre, for example, occurred in 1770, so in Massachusetts it will start this year.

Be that as it may, the impression conveyed by the text is that for 250 years the British colonies and American states had slavery. Why 250 years? Consider for example the separate section of The 1619 Project prepared by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture with Caitlin Roper, editorial director. In that section a full page is given to a quotation from Frederick Douglass expressing “the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation.” That document was proclaimed on January 1, 1863. The Smithsonian section contains no such expression of joy on the 250th anniversary exclaimed in the Sunday Magazine.

Regardless of whether one uses 244 years or 250, it is a false message. Not even all the colonies had been founded by 1619. Outside of Virginia, no colony/state had a 250 system of slavery even assuming 1868 is the date for the end of slavery. For that matter many northern states had outlawed slavery decades earlier. Consider again the Smithsonian section. There is a box there entitled “She Sued for Her Freedom.” It tells of Mumm Bett suing for her freedom under the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Her husband had died fighting in the American Revolution. Now she argued that slavery violated the rights enunciated in that document. She won and changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. The Smithsonian concludes that item with:

Her precedent-setting case helped to effectively bring an end to slavery in Massachusetts.

This action occurred long before the 250-year period touted in the Sunday Magazine. Again, the Smithsonian section undermines the message of the Sunday Magazine.

In addition, other states were founded as free states and never had slavery. The intention to depict that all America had slavery and for 250 years is deceptive at best and outright wrong.


Furthermore, the characterization of slavery as a “barbaric system of chattel slavery” also is false. Northern European countries like England and the Netherlands had no or little familiarity with slavery. The legal codes of these countries could handle serfs but slavery was new. In New Amsterdam, the Dutch struggled for decades on the legal status of the African slaves. During that time, some Africans became free. Africans could own land did so on a farm adjacent to the farm of Peter Stuyvesant. Africans could join the Dutch Reform Church. Africans could testify in court. Africans could initiate law suits. The numbers involved were comparatively small at this time. I suspect that if New Amsterdam had remained Dutch, free Africans would have become more and more like free Dutch and that slavery would have ended long before New York began in 1799 to legally end it, again before the touted 250-year period.

Admittedly, the situation in Virginia differed from that of New Amsterdam given all the plantations. Still it took a while to develop the chattel system referred to. After all, to create a system where 75%-white Sally Hemings is black doesn’t happen overnight. The year after 1619 was not the beginning of Gone-with-the-Wind plantations. Again the Smithsonian section sheds light on the deceptiveness of the Sunday Magazine Editor’s Note. A section entitled “Race Encoded into Law” notes the passage in Virginia in 1662 that essentially defines slaves as commodities. This passage implies it took Virginia about 43 years to render a formal decision in law that slaves were property not people. Hence since Sally Hemings mother was biracial and her mother’s mother was black, she was legally a black slave too.

The point here is no to deny the barbarity of the chattel slavery system but to recognize that it did not spring forth fully formed the day after the landing in 1619 or in all the future colonies that were established. America would have been better served if The New York Times had told the story of how chattel slavery emerged in Virginia over these forty-plus years.

Why is Silverstein seeking to convey a message of a national barbaric system of chattel slavery that lasted 250 years? The answer is simple as he concludes the opening paragraph.

This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.

The message bluntly put is that We the White People of America were born in America’s original sin. We the White People of America need to repent for this sin. And The New York Times is going to show us the path to redemption.


Silverstein compounds the problem in the opening words of the second paragraph.

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional…

Slavery does not require anti-black racism. Who knew Spartacus was black? The word “slave” derives from the Latin sclāvus (masculine), sclāva (feminine) from the Slavic peoples who dominated the medieval slave population in Europe. For that matter, why is it even politically correct to use the word “slave” or “enslaved” anyway? Can you say “gypped” or “jewed”? Putting that aside for the moment, there is a huge omission in The 1619 Project. It’s bad enough that Virginia is made the basis for all colonial and American history to the exclusion of what was happening elsewhere, but another gap in the storytelling is Africa itself. Hannah-Jones does mention in passing that the Virginia Africans brought by an English pirate ship were from a Portuguese trading ship that was from Angola, but that’s it.


Somehow the Middle Passage doesn’t have a start point. There is a lot of attention on the destination points in the Western Hemisphere. There is a lot of attention on the horrific conditions in the transportation to the Western Hemisphere. But there is minimal to no attention on the start point of that passage. In the (1500 and) 1600s, that means primarily modern Angola. Back then it meant two major kingdoms, Kongo and Ndongo(/Matamba) with a Portuguese colony of Angola named after the founding king of the Ndongo kingdom. The ignorance of the importance of Angola can be seen in the 400th anniversary trip to Africa by the NAACP. Where did they go? To Ghana. Going to Ghana for the 400th anniversary of slavery in Virginia makes about as much sense as going to England to honor Ellis Island immigrants.

The Smithsonian section introduces a slightly different picture. It notes the Romanus Pontifex of 1455 “which affirmed Portugal’s exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West Africa coast and the trade from those areas.” The Smithsonian quotes from the affirmation that Portugal had the right regarding the people it encountered to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” But it excludes the reference to “Saracens” which was the whole point of the expeditions. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moslems now encircled Europe cutting off access to both Slavs to serve as slaves and trade with Asia. There was the hope among Catholics that they could do an end-around by sailing south around Africa. In 1455, they didn’t know how far the coast extended. The Portuguese would not reach Ghana until the 1470s and Kongo until 1482. It should also be noted that Portugal was not even aware of the Western Hemisphere at this time.

Evidence of these sailings as part of a religious confrontation and not a racial one may be seen in the actions in Kongo. The king of Kongo was baptized in 1491. Missionaries began baptizing Kongolese in droves. Free Kongolese sailed to Lisbon to be educated. Diplomatic correspondence between Kongo and Portugal and the Vatican commenced. One Kongolese married into the royal family approximately 500 years before Meghan Markle. In the 1600’s Ndongo/Matamba entered into extensive relations with the Vatican in its quest to be recognized as a Christian kingdom. Kongo and Ndongo/Matamba were independent countries and represented Catholic outposts in the confrontation with Moslems. At this point in time, slaves were people not property and slavery was not based on anti-black racism.

Same-race slavery in Africa is another omission from The 1619 Project. In the Travel section of The New York Times, Jacqueline Woodson wrote Finding Pain and Joy in Ghana about her trip there as part of the 400th anniversary (December 15, 2019, print). On the Ghana invitation to descendants of which she is one, Woodson writes

In its efforts to bring the African diaspora together, Ghana’s leaders are also hoping to make amends for the complicity of Africans in selling their own people in what would become the trans-Atlantic slave trade….
…I found myself struggling to come to terms with those who worked with white traders to move black bodies into chattel slavery.

She quotes a passage from Henry Lewis Gates in Ending the Slavery Blame-Game published in The New York Times, April 22, 2010.

The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred…. But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.

The Smithsonian section also mentions Njinga. It focuses on her exploits as a freedom fighter against the Portuguese. There is no mention of her as a slave-owner or slave-trader. There is no mention of her alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese or of her purchase of guns and ammunition in exchange for slaves. There is no mention of becoming Catholic and trying to create a Catholic kingdom with extensive correspondence with the Vatican. Think also about the 500 miles mentioned by Gates. Now imagine the Tuscarora in Buffalo rounding up captive Indian tribe slaves, marching them to New Amsterdam, and selling them to the Dutch to be transported as slaves elsewhere. But Njinga gets a pass on her slave-owning and slave-trading in her fight against the Portuguese that Thomas Jefferson on a much smaller scale does not get. There was no abolition movement in Angola.

Frederick Douglass commented on this issue of African slave trade as well. With all the fuss about colonization and Abraham Lincoln in The 1619 Project, it is important to remember what Douglass had to say and which should be included in any school curriculum.

Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)

Why should Middle Passage blacks give up their white masters in the United States for the black ones in Africa who willingly, eagerly, and freely sold them to white people in the first place? Wouldn’t that make for a good high school essay topic?


With this background in mind, let us return to the original issue of replacing 1776 with as 1619 as the birth of the country and revising the school curriculum and national culture accordingly.

The 1619 Project of The New York Times is a direct assault on what Abraham Lincoln accomplished. Prior to him, one said “The United States are a country.” After him, one said as we still do to this very day, “The United States is a country.” It was Lincoln at Gettysburg who redefined America from being a collection of states to being a We the People country. Lincoln deserves credit not just for making Thanksgiving a national holiday for all Americans even if you were not of Pilgrim descent but for redefining July 4th as well. When Lincoln said “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers…” he knew that not everybody in the audience was a son or daughter of the American Revolution. He asserted that to stand for the Union then was to stand with the Founding Fathers in 1776. That principle has applied to all naturalized Americans since then.

Obviously not all Americans agreed with Lincoln’s vision then nor do they now. Most famously, Robert E. Lee self-identified as a Virginian and not an American. In effect, his Founding Father was John Smith and not the Founding Fathers we know today or who perform in Hamilton.

America at its birth consisted not only of many states but many peoples. There were Africans, Dutch, French Huguenots, German Palatines, Irish Catholics, Scotch Irish, and Sephardic Jews just to mention the main non-English ones. In addition there were English Anglicans, English Pilgrims, English Puritans, and English Quakers. And then there were the multiple Indian nations/peoples who thought of themselves as independent entities in their own right. To create a collective We the People from that mixed multitude was and is no easy task.

How many multi-religious countries were there in 1776 where people of all religions had the same rights?
How many multi-ethnic countries were there in 1776 where all ethnicities had the same rights?
How many multi-racial countries were there in 1776 where all races had the same rights?

The American story of exceptionalism has many points of origin leading to July 4 which did not grow out of 1619.

1607 with John Smith and Pocahontas
1620 with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving
1624 with the Dutch and the Island at the Center of the World
1630 with the Puritans and the City on a Hill.

All contributed to the story of America. There is no problem with adding 1619 to this list. Indeed, it should be. There is a big problem with deleting those dates and 1776 and replacing them with 1619 as the origin of America or as the basis of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.”

Consider this date which also could be added to the list. The first black to arrive in New Amsterdam was Juan (Jan) Rodriguez in 1613, six years before 1619. He was a free person of Portuguese and African (probably Angolan) descent. He married into a local Lenape tribe. His story then combines multiple races and ethnicities. In October, 2012, the New York City Council enacted legislation to name Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street in Manhattan after him. The neighborhood today is Dominican so the location is in tribute to Rodriguez’s place of birth. The location is around 120 blocks from The New York Times. So how about making 1613 the new birthday in recognition of the Island at the Center of the World and the expression of e pluribus unum through the life of Juan Rodriguez?

Our country is not defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or a geographic location but by an idea. The Founding Fathers built on the strands that came before them to start to weave multiple peoples into a unity. Abraham Lincoln continued that effort by including people who were not biological sons and daughters of the American Revolution as ideological sons and daughters if they stood with the Union. Irish who sang Yankee Doodle Dandy continued that journey of being included as Americans. Ellis Island immigrants who sang God Bless America continued that journey of being included as Americans. Middle Passage blacks who said “I have an American dream” and helped America land on the moon continued that journey of being included as Americans. The 250th anniversary of the American Revolution provides us with a desperately needed opportunity to continue that journey in the 21st century with many new peoples who are proud to be Americans and celebrate July 4th.

The 1619 Project represents a giant step backward away from continuing that journey. The front page article of today’s New York Times (“Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.”, January 13, 2020) is about the divided history textbooks of our divided nation. The political reporting of the newspaper testifies to the importance of the hostility to the politically correct in the 2016 presidential elections, a far bigger factor than Putin. Now The New York Times has decided to promote and aggravate the division of the country just as our President does at the precise time when we need to heal and unite as We the People. The New York Times has given us a false history that is woke but not helpful. What a wasted opportunity.