CRT’s attempt to reframe our country’s founding |

CRT’s attempt to reframe our country’s founding

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has argued that critical race theory is “another right-wing conspiracy theory” that was “totally made up.” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd said that critical race theory is being “manufactured” by the right. Yet, over the July 4 weekend, the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, announced plans to teach critical race theory in all 50 states and more than 14,000 school districts. The National Education Association believes it is real, and they would be right.

One of the narratives being incorporated into critical race theory curriculum is the 1619 Project originally published in 2019 by The New York Times as stories, poems, and essays about racism and slavery. Twenty Africans, believed to be the first enslaved Africans in British North America, arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619. The 1619 Project suggests that this was the moment of America’s “true founding.”

Written by journalists and opinion writers, not historians, the project attempts to reframe our country’s founding around the concepts of racism and slavery.

Within days of its launch in August 2019, a number of notable historians pointed out numerous factual inaccuracies and misleading statements in a letter to The New York Times. They included professors Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James McPherson and Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, James Oakes of the City University of New York, and Gordon Wood of Brown University.

They disputed many of the statements presented as facts in the 1619 Project, not the least of which was an essay promoting the idea that the American Revolution was motivated by a desire to preserve slavery.

Northwestern University History Professor Leslie Harris, an expert on African American life and slavery in the pre-Civil War era, was the first historian to levy criticism who had actually supported the project and participated in it as a fact-checker.

During the publication process, she was presented with the assertion that “one critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

Harris vigorously disputed this claim, explaining that while slavery was an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the colonies went to war. Yet that claim remains in the published account.

According to Harris, colonists had no need to secede to protect slavery, as slavery faced no immediate threat from Great Britain. The opposite was true, Harris argued, as the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American colonies. It led most of the 13 colonies to arm and employ free and enslaved black people with the promise of freedom to those who served in their armies. Thousands of enslaved people were freed as a result of these policies, and the ideals gaining force during the Revolutionary era also inspired many Northern states to pass laws gradually ending slavery.

These laws did not provide immediate emancipation, nor did they promise racial equality or full citizenship, but Professor Harris asserted that black activism during the Revolutionary War and the following era of emancipation led to the end of slavery much earlier than prescribed within those laws. Slaves often negotiated with their owners to purchase their freedom, or simply ran away in the confused aftermath of the war, and most Northern slave owners granted freedom to their slaves in advance of the time mandated by law.

Despite the many leading scholars who have discredited and criticized the project since its publication as historically inaccurate and ideologically driven, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the primary architect of the 1619 Project, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay introducing it.

The editorial staff of the New York Post, which had run multiple articles challenging the 1619 Project’s facts and arguments, wrote: “Too bad the Pulitzer committee now thinks that facts are irrelevant to journalism.” Most recently, Hannah-Jones has been awarded the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her alma mater. (She turned it down in favor of a position at Howard University.)

African-American history and slavery is a critical theme in America’s story, but we can recognize the impact of race without denying the roles of other influences or erasing or denigrating the contributions of early American settlers and our founding fathers, as critical race theory attempts to do.

A dozen Civil War professors and scholars have stated that they are “troubled that these materials are now … the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of The New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights.”

Professor Gordon Wood, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for history for a book on the American Revolution, wrote, “I have spent my career studying the American Revolution. … I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. … We all want justice, but not at the expense of truth.”

Despite its demonstrable flaws and distortions, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum approved by the California Department of Education this year draws significantly upon the 1619 Project to validate what The Wall Street Journal calls the curriculum’s “radical indoctrination.”

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at

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