Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Controversy Is Renewed About the 1619 Project, Which Says Racism “Is in America’s DNA”
The author of The New York Times 1619 Project argues essentially that American society is inherently racist, and has been from the beginning. When Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina, the 1619 Project came under renewed scrutiny. As school districts in various parts of the country adopt this curriculum for their schools, it is good that we further examine the thesis of this enterprise.
Many respected historians have taken sharp issue with the 1619 Project. A letter to The New York Times from Princeton historian Sean Wilentz and other prominent historians such as James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and Victoria Bynum, says that the project “reflected a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect Union. One passage in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay says:
“One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery as abolitionist sentiment was rising in Britain.”
Quite to the contrary, Prof. Wilentz sees the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world. He declares:
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding, not only of what the American Revolution was all about, but what America stood for, and has stood for since the Founding.”
Historians point out that slavery was a part of recorded history from the very beginning. It existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, and at the time the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, it was legal everyplace in the world. The notion that slavery was, somehow, America’s “original sin” is completely ahistorical. Indeed, the idea that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery because anti-slavery feeling was growing in England is without foundation. In fact, anti-slavery sentiment was far stronger in the American colonies at that time.
Prof. Wilentz sees the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from thousands of years in which human slavery was accepted around the world.
Beyond this, the American Revolution was kindled in New England where pre-war anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel the abolitionist movement.
The 1619 Project expresses pessimism that “a majority of white people will abandon racism.” The idea that a majority of white Americans are “racist” is itself false. It makes readers wonder what country the author has been living in. In the Civil War, 360,222 white Americans lost their lives in the fight against slavery. The 1619 Project sounds as if the South won the Civil War.
The 1619 Project declares that “anti-black racism is in the very DNA of this country.”
I wonder if Hannah-Jones has been living in the same country as the rest of us. Slavery was an extraordinary evil, but was hardly “original” to America. Historically, people became slaves in a variety of ways. Many gave up their freedom because of economic necessity. In ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Rome, and among black Africans and Aztecs, a man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. Slavery through violence has also been common throughout history people were kidnapped by raiders, captured in war, or sent as tribute to governments as conquered peoples. From the 1500s to the 1800s Europeans — from France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands — shipped ten of millions of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere.
When the Constitution was written in 1787, many delegates to the Philadelphia convention wanted to eliminate slavery at the beginning — among them Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin. They did eliminate the slave trade in 1808. In 1787, no other country in the world had made slavery illegal. It was clearly a sin, and equally clear is the fact that it was not “original” to America. In retrospect, we can argue that it should have been eliminated at the beginning.
But the Framers knew that changes would be needed as the country moved forward. They created the amending process. They were in many ways far ahead of their time. In the First Amendment, they provided religious freedom for all, a really unique idea at that time. They opened immigration to men and women from throughout the world. Already in the colonial period, 18 languages were spoken in New Amsterdam when it became New York. All these people would become Americans — bound together not by common ancestry or common religion but by a common commitment to freedom.
Black Americans have indeed suffered from slavery and the years of segregation which followed. We should all regret this aspect of our history. But we had an ability to change and move forward. Think of what has happened in my lifetime alone. I lived in Virginia in the years of segregation. Black men and women could only eat in separate restaurants, use “Colored only” restrooms, drink from “Colored only” water fountains, and use separate waiting rooms at airports and train stations. They had to sit at the back of the bus. I remember 1957, when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to integrate the schools.
Then, slowly, things changed. We passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black Americans, in possession of equal rights, moved forward. Respected black men and women became Secretaries of State, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Supreme Court Justices, and, finally, President of the United States.
Could this have happened if “racism is in our DNA,” as the 1619 Project tells us?
Sadly, racism still exists in our society, as cases such as that of George Floyd indicate. But it has been in steady retreat. The goal of men and women of goodwill, the vast majority of Americans, has been the achievement of Martin Luther King’s dream of a genuinely “colorblind society.” Whatever the motives of its author, the 1619 Project moves us in the opposite direction. Even The New York Times, in its response to Prof. Wilentz, agreed that the 1619 Project had overstated its case, particularly in falsely arguing that defense of slavery was a goal of the American Revolution.
Pride in America Is in Dramatic Decline Among Young People
In a Gallup Poll this June, only 63 percent of American adults say they are “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be American, the lowest level of patriotism ever recorded since Gallup first asked the question in 2001. Among the youngest people surveyed, only 4 out of 10 respondents age 18-34 claim to be extremely or very proud of being American.
Sadly, the teaching of American history has dramatically declined in our schools. A 2016 report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni even found that two-thirds of top U.S. colleges do not even require history majors to take a single course in U.S. history. How many young people know that ours is the longest existing form of government in the world? No other country in 2021 lives under the same form of government that existed in their countries in 1787. In the Constitution, the Framers established religious freedom, separation of church and state, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. These did not really exist anyplace else in the world at that time.
The Framers of the Constitution knew that their work was imperfect, and would have to be amended. Unfortunately, they compromised on the question of slavery. Many of the Framers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, wanted to end slavery at the beginning. Still, those who criticize the Framers seem not to know that in 1787 slavery had not been made illegal anyplace in the world. Slavery, unfortunately, was the way of the world from Ancient Greece and Rome to the 19th century. It was embraced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Bible, slaves are told by Paul to follow the commands of their masters. This is hardly, as many now tell us, America’s “original sin.”
What younger Americans seem not to have been taught is that ours is not simply another country but, instead, is the embodiment of an idea — the idea of individual freedom. Those who call themselves Americans are the descendants of brave men and women of every race and religion and nationality who left their native homes in search of a place where a person’s station in the world would be based upon his ability, not upon the accident of birth. Such a concept was rare more than 300 years ago. It is still rare today. Otherwise, America would not remain the magnet for the hopes and dreams of millions throughout the world.
Creating a new nationality made up of all the people of the world is no mean accomplishment. At the very beginning of the new nation, Thomas Paine noted that:
“. . . If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the Union of such a people was impracticable. But by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retired, and the parts are brought into cordial unison.”
The great mixture of peoples in America — the “melting pot” which was once hailed but is now sometimes denigrated by those with rising “ethnic awareness” — is not new, but existed at the very beginning. In Letters of an American Farmer written in 1782, Jean De Crevecoeur asks, “What then is the American, this new man?” He responds: “He is either a European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.”
“I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have four wives of different nations. He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared. . . . The American ought therefore to love his country much better that that wherein he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor.”
Now, of course, the American story includes not only Europeans, but men and women of every race, religion, and nation. In Redburn, written in 1849, Herman Melville declares:
“There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the peoples of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a Drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world . . . we are not a narrow tribe of men . . . No: our blood is the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand Noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”
At a time when religious freedom was largely unknown in the world, George Washington wrote his now famous letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All alike possess liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
We are ill-serving the younger generation of Americans by not transmitting our history. We are ill-serving them as well by making Washington an arena of narrow partisanship, as manifested by the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Is it any wonder that patriotism is in decline?
In his book History of the Idea of Progress, Robert Nisbet writes:
“There is by now no single influence greater in negative impact . . . than our far-flung and relentless jettisoning of the past. The past, let us remember, is sacred ground for any genuine, creative, and free civilization. Readers will not have forgotten how crucial it was for the rulers of Orwell’s society in 1984 to blot out or else remake the past. Without the past as represented by ritual, tradition, and memory, there can be no roots; and without roots, human beings are condemned to a form of isolation in time that easily becomes self-destructive.”
Author Mario Puzo, the son of Italian immigrants, recalls growing up in New York’s Lower East Side:
“What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries . . . whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved . . . economic dignity and freedom . . . And some even became artists.”
How sad that we are not transmitting our unique history to the younger generation of Americans. It is time that we change course, as the latest indication that pride in America is declining makes clear. And our politicians who continue to insult one another and question the loyalty of their adversaries should think before they speak, and weigh their words more carefully. In the past, our politicians found it possible to disagree without being disagreeable. In the current age of social media and Twitter, people speak before they think, and often regret their words. Civility in our political discourse would represent an important ingredient in restoring the pride in America which is now in decline — along with a serious and fair teaching of our history, its great achievements as well as its shortcomings. No human enterprise is without fault, but few have the achievements which Americans used to view with pride.
Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: An Extraordinary Story of Cooperation to Build Schools for Black Children in the Segregated South
At a time when we are hearing a great deal about racial division, it is important to remember the important collaboration one hundred years ago of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The two men first met in 1911 at a Chicago luncheon. In the book You Need a Schoolhouse (Northwestern University Press), Stephanie Deutsch offers a fascinating look into the partnership that would bring thousands of modern schoolhouses to African-American communities in the rural South.
Julius Rosenwald was one of America’s wealthiest men and was committed to philanthropy. He was influenced by the Reform Jewish tradition of seeking to improve and repair the world. Active in Chicago Sinai Congregation, he was close to its rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, who advised him to use part of his wealth to help build schools for black students in the segregated South. With Washington, Rosenwald entered into a massive project based on the use of matching funds from local communities.
Washington leapt onto the national scene following the nationwide publication of his speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. This was the same year that respected abolitionist Frederick Douglass died. Douglass, one of Washington’s personal heroes, had been black America’s leader and spokesman for 50 years. Washington inherited Douglass’ firm belief in the strength and capability of his black brethren. When asked by a white journalist, “What do you blacks want from white people?” Douglass replied, “Just leave us alone and we can take care of ourselves.” It was Washington’s firm belief that former slaves could stand on their own feet and achieve prosperity in American society.
The most important theme for Washington was education. A second theme, closely tied to education, was self-reliance. Tuskegee began as a “Normal School” and focused on training black men and women to become skilled at building, farming, and other occupations so they could earn their way into mainstream American society. A third Washington theme was entrepreneurship. Living at a time of racism and segregation, Washington encouraged black men and women to look at the need for goods and services in their communities as an opportunity to start their own businesses. In 1900, Washington founded the first black businessman’s association, the National Negro Business League. He personally helped many black businesses get started by introducing black entrepreneurs to white investors.
In some circles in recent days, Booker T. Washington has come under criticism. Professor Anne Wortham of Illinois State University declares that:
“As a member of the Tuskegee Institute class of 1963, I was the beneficiary of Booker T. Washington’s legacy. . . . One of Washington’s well-known metaphors was ‘Cast down your bucket where you are’. . . . Washington’s critics have distorted the metaphor to suggest that his words were those of an appeaser of white racism. It is wrongly used to suggest that. Washington believed the best approach to race relations was that blacks should not protest the system of white supremacy that blocked their striving. But if Washington actually believed that blacks should not protest the state of their community, why did he devote all of his life to promoting industrial education, economic self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, and self-cultivation? . . . ‘Cast down your bucket’ was the advocacy, not of resignation or passive accommodation, but of self-initiated and self-responsible action.”
In 1901, Washington published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, which became the best-selling book ever written by an African American. It was eventually translated into seven languages, and was as popular in Europe as it was in Africa. It was more than an autobiography. It was an explication of Washington’s major themes: education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship.
In 1910, The Chicago Tribune asked several prominent Chicagoans which books had most influenced them. Julius Rosenwald, identified as one of Chicago’s leading citizens, named two. They were An American Citizen: The Life of William Henry Baldwin, Jr., and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. The book about Baldwin, writes Stephanie Deutsch:
“. . . did not describe the exciting events of an adventurous life, but, rather, the way one man answered a question he himself found vital, a question of great interest to Rosenwald: Is it possible to succeed in business without sacrificing personal morality and idealism? Baldwin, president of the Southern Railway, made it his stated goal to use his influence and his wealth for the good of his workers. . . . A large part of the book dealt with a subject especially dear to Baldwin — his work as a member of the board of Tuskegee, and his relationship with Booker T. Washington.”
Describing how the connection between Rosenwald and Washington began, Deutsch notes that:
“It was a chance encounter on a train and their mutual connection to the YMCA movement that led to the meeting, which later seemed so inevitable, between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald. On one of his northern trips, Washington fell into conversation with Wilber Messer, a white minister and General Secretary of Chicago’s YMCA. He asked Messer if he could suggest a wealthy person from Chicago who might have an interest in serving on the board of Tuskegee. Messer named Julius Rosenwald. He then ensured that the two men would meet by inviting both to speak at the annual YMCA dinner in Chicago in May 1911.”
The rest, of course, is history. Julius Rosenwald joined the board of Tuskegee. Visiting Tuskegee, writes Deutsch:
“. . . introduced Rosenwald to some of the less pleasing aspects of life for blacks in the South. On one of the early visits, driving in the countryside not far from Tuskegee, Rosenwald and Washington passed a dilapidated wooden shack with just one window. That, Booker T. Washington told Rosenwald, was a typical state-run primary school for black children in Alabama. He explained that thanks to two northern donors — Anna Jeans, a Quaker woman who had given $1 million to aid black teachers in a fund administered through the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board, and Henry Rogers, an executive of the Standard Oil Company — some new schools had been built. But Jeans and Rogers had both recently died, and there was a huge need throughout the state and the entire South for more and better schoolhouses for black children.”
Rosenwald and Washington embarked upon a program to help build schools for black children across the South. Rosenwald began by providing funds to build six small schools in rural Alabama that were constructed and opened in 1913 and 1914. In the end, more than 5,000 schools were constructed across the South, with Rosenwald providing a portion of the funds, and local communities raising the remainder. By 1932, there was a “Rosenwald school,” as they became known, in every county with a significant black population in the South. A third of all black children in the South were attending Rosenwald schools. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. once said that he would donate to anything Rosenwald did because he had complete trust in his philanthropy.
One of the towering figures of the civil rights movement, the late Rep. John Lewis, grew up on an Alabama farm south of Tuskegee. The elementary school he attended was a Rosenwald school. In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalls the fish fries, picnics, and carnivals that neighbors would organize to raise money for supplies for the school. He wrote that to his parents, “Education represented an almost mythical key to the kingdom of America’s riches, the kingdom so long denied to our race.” In the years of slavery, it was illegal to even teach black children to read.
Stephanie Deutsch, who is married to the great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald, concludes:
“Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald were men who judged each other not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. Certainly, each had something the other wanted — Julius had the wealth and influence that Booker needed to further his work; Washington was connected to a segment of society that Rosenwald wished to encourage but knew little about. But each judged — correctly — that the other had goals larger than himself. . . . The schools they built assured people in otherwise forgotten corners of the rural South that they could offer their children opportunities they themselves had been denied. The Rosenwald schools provided for the children who attended them not just book learning but also a personal legacy from Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, of faith in democracy, optimism, confidence, and hope.”
There are many lessons for today from the collaboration of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, if only we would study our history more carefully. *