In Defense of Unbiased History Education

Jay Bergman

Editor’s Note: The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project” was launched in August 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first time slaves were brought to the shores of Virginia. The Project, spearheaded by journalist-activist Nikole Hannah-Jones, does not merely attempt to retell the history of American slavery, but rather to recast all of American history as being centered on and made possible by the Atlantic slave trade. In the Times’ own words: “It [The 1619 Project] aims to 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.”

What has followed is a series of essays, poems, podcasts, speeches, and educational initiatives arguing this fundamental claim. As of May, The 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of “Commentary Journalism” and has scored Nikole Hannah-Jones well over 40 speaking engagements around the country. However, in the year since the Project’s launch, Hannah-Jones and The New York Times have also received immense criticism from historians of all stripes, who rightly point out the many egregious errors both in the historical content and interpretative conclusions of The 1619 Project. 

Unfortunately, the poorly-researched claims of The 1619 Project are not limited to the pages of The New York Times Magazine. Through a partnership with the Pulitzer Center (no connection to the prizes), the Times has developed 1619-inspired history curricula to supplant  American history in K-12 public schools. School boards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have the choice to use this pseudo-historical, anti-American curriculum in their history classrooms—many have already done so. The efficacy of such a project is clear: to train our children that America is a slavocracy, not a republic founded on the ideals that “all men are created equal.” 

The following letter is from NAS Board Member Jay Bergman, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, to Maureen Brummett, Superintendent of Schools in his hometown of Newington, CT. NAS endorses Bergman’s letter as a model to follow for those interested in pushing back against the implementation of 1619 curricula in their local schools. 

We encourage you to do the same, if you are able. NAS has published a template letter, to be sent to superintendents, school board members, state legislators, and governors, for your convenience:

Download our template letter as a Word document

Download our template letter as a PDF


Dear Dr. Brummett,

I write as a professor of history and as the parent of a son who attended sequentially the Ruth Chafee Elementary School, the John Wallace Middle School, and Newington High School from 1994 to 2007. He, my wife, and I consider the education he received in Newington to have been excellent. Among the most impressive of the teachers and administrators to whom we remain grateful is David Milardo, longtime principal at John Wallace, who is now a treasured friend.

I urge you in the strongest terms not to adopt the New York Times' "1619 Project," announced to great fanfare earlier this year, as the basis for teaching American history in the Newington school system. Regrettably, many school districts across the country have already done so.

The project presents America's history as driven, nearly exclusively, by white racism: The Founding Fathers engineered the colonies' separation from Britain and their declaration of independence solely to preserve the institution of slavery, which the British were intent on abolishing. America's subsequent Industrial Revolution, based as it was on capitalism and a free market economy, did nothing to ameliorate the institution; indeed, slavery was the reason capitalism emerged in the first place, and its pernicious effects continued well beyond its abolition after the Civil War. Literally nothing of any prominence and lasting value in America's contemporary economy has been achieved without the enslavement of black Africans beginning in 1619—and the government policies from which Americans benefit today were carried out for the purpose of perpetuating "white supremacy"; one example cited in the project, the Interstate Highway System established in the 1950s by the Eisenhower Administration, was designed expressly for the purpose of destroying black neighborhoods. And today we consume excessive amounts of sugar in our diet because the enslavement of blacks caused it to be plentiful.

All of this, and nearly everything else in the 1619 Project, is entirely false, mostly false, or merely misleading. If you do not take my word for it—and you should not, since my area of expertise is Russian, not American history—what follows this paragraph are just a few of the critiques of the project offered by some of the most eminent American historians in the United States today, most of whom are politically liberal and highly critical of the Trump Administration. (An insight I can provide as a historian of Europe is that, notwithstanding the project's creators, industrialization—like that which America experienced in the 19th century—renders slavery obsolete. Because slaves on farms can grow the food they consume, slavery historically has been overwhelmingly a rural and agrarian institution. By contrast, workers in factories who are paid nothing will starve. For that reason, they must be paid, and as industrialization proceeds, whatever political influence slaveholders have inevitably diminishes.)

"A Matter of Facts," Sean Wilentz, The Atlantic, January 22, 2020.

"A Historian’s Critique of the 1619 Project," Victoria Bynum, Renegade South, December 22, 2019.

"History Without Truth," KC Johnson, City Journal, December 31, 2019.

"We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project," Jake Silverstein, The New York Times, December 20, 2019.

"Historians Rip Into The New York Times After It Refuses To Address Requests For Corrections To The ‘1619 Project’," Shelby Talcott, Daily Caller, December 22, 2019.

"The New York Times Goes All In on Flawed 1619 Project," Mark Hemingway, RealClearPolitics, February 21, 2020.

"The ‘1619 Project’ Gets Schooled," Elliot Kaufman, The Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2019.

You should also know that the principal executor of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is an anti-white bigot—words I do not take lightly or apply promiscuously—who claims, with a straight face, that whites today are descendants of "savages" and "barbaric devils," and that Christopher Columbus is morally indistinguishable from Hitler:

"In Racist Screed, NYT’s 1619 Project Founder Calls ‘White Race’ ‘Barbaric Devils,’ ‘Bloodsuckers,’ Columbus ‘No Different Than Hitler’," Jordan Davidson, The Federalist, June 25, 2020.

Perhaps the most libelous aspect of the project is its conclusion that America today remains irredeemably racist in its institutions, its society, and its national culture—which means that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, best exemplified in Martin Luther King's magnificent speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963—was an abject failure. Not even the 600,000 Americans—most of them white—who died in the Civil War should be singled out for praise and thanked posthumously for their sacrifice because the cause they fought for was not the elimination of slavery, nor even the preservation of the union, but rather the perpetuation of "white privilege" under the aegis of Jim Crow.

Hannah-Jones is not shy in declaring that the ultimate objective of the project is reparations for blacks, in which whites not responsible for slavery or Jim Crow transfer some of their hard-earned money to blacks who did not suffer personally from either of these stains on our history. The project is thus a form of extortion, a means of preying on unwarranted white guilt for what I consider nefarious and self-serving purposes.

Another aspect of the project I find abhorrent and dishonest is that what inspired its adoption in school districts around the country since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the notion—which has now become the conventional wisdom—that the police are racists, and kill black people not because they are guilty of crimes but because of their race. This is empirically false. It has no basis in reality and slanders literally thousands of decent police officers as racists solely on the basis of the color of their skin. In fact, law enforcement in America is not marred by any generic or "institutional" or "systemic" anti-black racism. Statistics provided by Peter Kirsanow, a current member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, make this amply clear:

"Flames from False Narratives," Peter Kirsanow, National Review, June 4, 2020.

It is worth pointing out that according to a data base established by the Washington Post—which is hardly a right-wing or "pro-Trump" publication—in 2019 the total number of unarmed blacks killed by police in the entire United States was 15. Bear in mind that there are 42 million blacks in America today and that there were 686,665 police officers in the entire country in 2018; the total number of yearly police interactions with civilians of all races and ethnicities runs into the millions.

Finally, the whole notion that white racism is somehow embedded in contemporary American society is absurd. In virtually every major institution in America today blacks are the beneficiaries of preferences, misleadingly and euphemistically called "affirmative action" to conceal the fact that they are inherently discriminatory and unfair, and in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Why would the white racists who supposedly are in charge in our country today put in place preferences on behalf of people they consider to be racially inferior? Either these white racists are inordinately stupid or they are not really racists at all. The latter, both empirically and logically, is the truth.

I am grateful for your attention and consideration. The matter I am raising here is of critical importance. That American students today are taught about the virtues and the triumphs and the achievements of our country, as well as its failings and inadequacies, is essential in the creation of future generations of citizens capable of making informed and reasonable judgments about their political leaders and the policies they should pursue.

In sum, I hope you see to it that the 1619 Project in no way informs the teaching of American history in the Newington school system.

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Sincerely,

Jay Bergman

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Professor of History

Central Connecticut State University

New Britain CT 06050 &

Member, Board of Directors

National Association of Scholars

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P. S. After composing this letter, I learned that Hannah-Jones, under the pseudonym Ida Bae Wells, admitted in a tweet that "the 1619 Project is not history.  It is a work of journalism [that] has always been as much about the present as it is [about] the past."


Jay Bergman is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University and serves on the NAS Board of Directors.

Image: Auguste Francois Biard, Public Domain

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