Buffalo is joining cities like Chicago, Newark and Washington, D.C., in changing the way its public schools teach students about the legacy of slavery.
Starting Feb. 1, The 1619 Project—a special edition of The New York Times Magazine published in August 2019—is set to become a mandated part of Buffalo’s curriculum for seventh through 12th graders. The project argues, through a series of journalistic articles, that American history should be reframed around the beginning of American slavery, which dates to 1619.
“One of the things that we are looking at in implementing The 1619 Project is to let everyone know that the issues around the legacy of enslavement that exist today, it's an American issue. It's not a Black issue,” said Dr. Fatima Morrell, associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives for Buffalo Public Schools.
Morrell explained her job as a combination of making sure students see themselves in their coursework and providing ongoing professional development for teachers and administrators in order to tackle disparate outcomes for students from historically marginalized communities. She spearheaded the effort to incorporate The 1619 Project into the district’s curriculum after Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash shared it with his cabinet.
“When he introduced it to us in the summer, I was aghast at what all I did not know, and I consider myself a pretty well-read woman and educator,” Morrell said.
The project examines the lesser-known consequences of slavery, not just much-discussed topics like mass incarceration. Its essays deal with things like how plantation economics led to modern corporate, capitalist culture and how post-Civil War politicians blocked universal health care because they opposed medical treatment for recently-freed slaves.
There’s a lot of content to grapple with, so the district started with trainings for teachers and administrators at the middle and high school levels in early January. At the high school session on Jan. 9, educators took time to read two of the articles and then presented to the group with a take on what they learned.
“We called ours school-to-prison ladder, like Chutes and Ladders that you played as a kid,” said Ndekezi Ndeze, presenting for the group from P.S. #212 Leonardo Da Vinci High School. “As you know, playing Chutes and Ladders, anything can bring you down from that ladder. Because we’re all trying to climb, our students are trying to climb [to] that level of success, but there are so many things that bring our kids down.”
Walter Diaz, a bilingual Spanish social studies teacher at P.S. #207 Lafayette International Community High School, said his group focused on the struggles of the district’s fastest growing group of students, children from Puerto Rico.
“Will we just be bystanders, enablers and perpetrators in our BPS Latino students not succeeding or will we be part of the positive change?” he asked.
One week later, it was some of the Da Vinci’s students’ turn to use The 1619 Project to spark difficult questions about systemic racism and inequality.
As snow fell on the stately D’Youville campus outside P.S. #212, a mix of white, Black, Hispanic and Asian students filed into a light-filled lab called “the fish bowl” for Damariz Hacker’s 12th grade social studies class. Hacker outlined their goals for the lesson, which was one of the first in the district to engage with the new material.
“We’re going to create a timeline of the U.S. and its history [and] we’re going to talk about what is The 1619 Project,” she said, and the students got to work.
“So far, we have World War I and World War II, because those were pretty big,” said Da Vinci students Mohammed and Chris. “We have Martin Luther King because he was a civil rights activist, Vietnam War, voting rights for African Americans and Emancipation Proclamation, but we don’t have it in order.”
Hacker had drawn a paper timeline from 1600 to 2020 up on one of the walls, where Mohammed, Chris and their classmates started to fill in their events. Most of them fell within the last 100-150 years, but discussion soon turned to the event that inspired The 1619 Project.
It was an August day 400 years ago when “20-some-odd Negroes who were first sold into chattel slavery landed on Port Comfort, Virginia,” Morrell said. That was the moment “when someone made the decision that we will now start with human cargo.”
After leading students through an exercise in reviewing and answering questions about the photos and visuals in the magazine copy of The 1619 Project—some of which show graphic scenes of lynchings or the aftermath of whippings—Ms. Hacker asked them to reflect on what stood out to them most.
“They just put him on display and you see all the people who are just looking at that,” said a student named Jasmine, looking at a photo of a lynching. “That just really dehumanizes people, Black people, and tells them to stay in your place. It’s just a crazy picture.”
Another student spoke about a portrait of last living survivor of slavery, who died in 1937.
“I thought that was crazy that slavery has basically been around for that long, like she was the last survivor, like she died so recently.”
“Right, less than 100 years ago,” Hacker responded. “It’s just amazing that it still touches our lives, right?”
When The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, the demand for print copies was the highest since the magazine’s 2008 edition of President Obama’s historic victory. But despite its widespread popularity, a group of five historians recently criticized The 1619 Project for containing what they say are some factual errors and misleading information “driven by ideology rather than historical understanding.”
In his response, The New York Times’ Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein said he disagreed with the scholars’ claims and argued that there will always be debates about how to see the past. For her part, Dr. Morrell said she doesn’t buy into the criticism but that she’s ready to work with Buffalo parents who might.
“When I am able to sit down in a room one-on-one with parents who hold those beliefs, a lot of times we're able to come to a compromise when I say, ‘We can agree to disagree, but I want you to hear our—I want you to hear the other story of the native, the indigenous, I want you to hear the story of the African Americans, because your story is in the textbooks. Ours isn't.’”
Over the next few weeks, Buffalo’s 11th and 12th-graders will be receiving their own print copies of the 1619 Project, 5,600 of which were donated by the Pulitzer Center. The district will also be rolling out new curriculum and digital access for all students starting in seventh grade.