- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Pulitzer Prizes Administrator Dana Canedy defended Tuesday the decision to honor the widely disputed 1619 Project, which reframes the American Revolution as a battle to protect slavery, even as she acknowledged that “perhaps most historians” would disagree with its premise.

Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her Aug. 14 essay introducing the 1619 Project, an ambitious New York Times series that has made its way into classrooms in all 50 states despite being criticized by leading scholars as historically inaccurate and ideologically driven.

In a statement, Ms. Canedy said the board was “very proud of this selection,” saying that its “fresh political perspective, provocativeness of the argument, and engaging writing is what we are awarded,” even though the essay’s thesis was an academic outlier.

“The piece provoked useful public debate and conversation about an important matter — the very identity of our nation. This is what we want commentary to do,” Ms. Canedy said in an email.

The 1619 Project held that the nation’s true founding was not 1776 but 1619, the year the first slaves were brought by ship from Africa to Colonial America, landing in Virginia.

“Although many historians, perhaps most historians, believe that the preservation of slavery was not among the primary causes of the Revolutionary War, we do not regard this as a matter of settled ‘fact,’ but something still subject to scholarly debate and contestation,” Ms. Canedy wrote. “This piece is also about so much more than the revolutionary war. [It’s] about slavery and its consequences for the very character of the nation.”

The award announced Monday drew immediate outcry on the right. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro called the 1619 Project “divisive, erroneous and terrible for the country. Naturally, it was just rewarded with a Pulitzer.”

Robert Woodson, a longtime civil rights activist who founded the 1776 Project to counter The New York Times series, said the Pulitzer conferred prestige on a politically slanted screed.

“I really think it’s an outrage that they’ve taken a political document that masquerades as history and give it that kind of acknowledgement,” Mr. Woodson said.

In a Monday staff editorial, the New York Post, which has run multiple articles challenging the 1619 Project’s facts and arguments, said that the “only Pulitzer the 1619 Project deserved was for fiction.”

“Slavery and Jim Crow are tremendous stains on America’s history,” the editorial said. “But Hannah-Jones took it far beyond that, insisting that they are the nation’s essence. That’s why the country’s top US history scholars — Princeton’s Sean Wilentz and James McPherson, Brown’s Gordon Wood, CUNY’s James Oakes — united to denounce Hannah-Jones’ core claims.”

The editorial concluded: “Too bad the Pulitzer committee now thinks that facts are irrelevant to journalism.”

At the same time, the award drew cheers from PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, who tweeted that the prize was “well-deserved,” as well as Northwestern University history professor Leslie Harris.

“Nikole Hannah-Jones is rightly celebrated by the Pulitzer Prize for her visionary efforts in opening up a new and much-needed national conversation on the meaning of slavery and race in our history,” Ms. Harris said in an email.

Ms. Harris had challenged the project’s premise, saying “the Revolutionary War was a disrupter of slavery in the North American colonies” in a March 6 article in Politico. She also said the Times had ignored some of her suggested corrections.

But she noted that she also had praised the project for its focus on slavery, saying in her article that it was “easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history.”

“Nikole Hannah-Jones is rightly celebrated by the Pulitzer Prize for her visionary efforts in opening up a new and much-needed national conversation on the meaning of slavery and race in our history,” said Ms. Harris.

Justice but not at expense of truth

Critics noted that the Pulitzer board chose to honor the most disputed article in the series, “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” which claimed for example that President Abraham Lincoln “opposed black equality” and ignored the contributions of white abolitionists and civil rights activists.

The New York Times ultimately made corrections on two minor errors — a misspelled name and incorrect date — as well as the addition of the words “some of” to make it clear that not all of the colonists were primarily motivated by an impulse to safeguard, as explained in an editor’s “update.”

“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said in the updated article.

Those changes failed to assuage the concerns of some journalists or historians.

“How many Pulitzer prizes have gone to essays that have had to subsequently publicly correct one of their core claims? Or been challenged by every major historian in the field, right and center and left?” tweeted former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan.

A dozen Civil War professors and scholars told the New York Times in a Dec. 30 letter published on the History News Network that the project presented a “historically-limited view of slavery” and “problematic treatment of major issues and personalities.”

“We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times,” said the scholars. “The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights.”

In a Dec. 21 letter to the New York Times, Mr. Wood, a Brown University professor of history and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for history for a book on the American Revolution, said, “We all want justice, but not at the expense of truth.”

“I have spent my career studying the American Revolution and cannot accept the view that ‘one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,’” Mr. Wood said. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves.”

The 1619 Project has also given rise to a K-12 curriculum promoted by the Pulitzer Center, the project’s “official education partner,” based on the work of Ms. Hannah-Jones, the series coordinator, including reading guides and activities that have entered 4,500 classrooms.

Pulitzer Center spokesman Jeff Barrus said the institution is an independent nonprofit news and educational organization with no connection to the Pulitzer Prizes, which are administered by the Columbia University School of Journalism.

That entrée into the nation’s schools has alarmed those who view the 1619 Project as more of an activist screed than a serious work of history and journalism.

Former New York Times editor Tony Kuntz accused the newspaper of failing to acknowledge that it was “advancing an unorthodox view held by a minority of academic and theorists.”

“Viewing all of U.S. history through the lens of race and subjugation, the 1619 Project is less a work of revisionist history than advocacy,” he said in RealClearInvestigations, “one already being used to change the teaching of American history with related course materials distributed widely to schools.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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