In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
These words appear on the cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine with a photo by Dannielle Bowman of "the water off the coast of Hampton, Va., at the site where the first enslaved Africans were recorded being brought to Britain's North American colonies." This launched The 1619 Project which includes a collection of essays "on different aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incarceration to rush-hour traffic, that have their roots in slavery and its aftermath. Each essay takes up a modern phenomenon, familiar to all, and reveals its history. The first, by the staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones (from whose mind this project sprang), provides the intellectual framework for the project and can be read as an introduction." (p. 5) You can listen to Ms. Hannah-Jones present her essay on the August 23 episode of the Times' "The Daily" podcast or the initial episode of the 1619 audio series (available wherever you access your podcasts). The Library subscribes to the New York Times (if you want to read a physical copy - check the SLPL catalog to see which branches have the August 18 edition of the Magazine), and also provides digital access to SLPL card holders - visit this link and follow the instructions.
Inspired by The 1619 Project, we did a search of the St. Louis Public Library catalog that yielded 40 books with "1619" in the title or subtitle, and decided to pull those that were available at Central Library in physical form (a few are ebooks and/or audiobooks) together for a book display. While several of these books are new (the most recent arrival is Workers on Arrival - Black Labor in the Making of America by Joe William Trotter, Jr.), many of the books on the display were published in the 1960s and '70s, and one (Fugitive Slaves - 1619-1865), was originally published in 1891 (it was reprinted in 1971 from a copy in the Fisk University Library Negro Collection).
Presumably many of the books from the '60s and '70s were products of (and some a reaction to) the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements, and an attempt to capture and share a history of Black Americans that was often overlooked or misrepresented. This presumption is supported by Mary Mace Spradling's dedication to In Black and White: Afro-Americans in Print (1971): "To those who would restore the 'lost pages' to the historical record of our country." The author hoped it would "be of value in: (1) illustrating that the Afro-American DID contribute to the country to which he was forcibly brought; (2) leading to further research relating to the heritage, culture, and contributions of Afro-Americans; (3) demonstrating the role played by one American public library in its service to the public." (It also has this very cool cover, designed by Junius DeGroat, and one has to appreciate the nice shout-out to a public library, in this instance the Kalamazoo Library System.)
Several of the books are compilations of first person accounts and primary documents, including Weren't No Good Times, a collection of interviews with former enslaved persons in Alabama as part of the New Deal's WPA Federal Writers' Project, I Too Am America, which was published in 1968 as part of the International Library of Negro Life and History, and The Half Has Never Been Told, a 2016 book using slave narratives, plantation records, and other contemporary documents to explore the intersection of slavery and capitalism (also available from the Library in streaming or CD audiobook form).
The 1619 Project has generated a lot of praise, discussion, and as must be expected with any project touching on slavery and race in the United States, its fair share of controversy. Newt Gingrich has called it "propaganda," a Wall Street Journal opinion piece claims it "hurts blacks," and the National Review labels it "potted history" and points out (correctly) that "black America is not a monolith...." (Note: the Library subscribes to both the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, along with many other fine periodicals; grateful that our customer base is not a monolith, we try to make sure that a variety of perspectives is represented on our shelves and through our digital presence. If you are thwarted by the WSJ paywall, come pick up the August 29 edition - we typically hold onto the paper going back about three months - where you'll find the above-referenced opinion piece on p. A15.)
The 1619 Project provides us with an opportunity to explore and think, to contemplate and discuss, perhaps even to argue; you might go into it thinking one thing, and then change your mind, then end up with another position altogether. We like to think that the Library can play a role in helping people explore slavery, the past, present, and future of the United States, and all the issues raised by The 1619 Project further. Come visit us, check out our book display (much of which is virtually represented here in list form), and let us know what you think.