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History Homework


  1. How did the American Revolution’s rhetoric of equality, including the words of the Declaration of Independence, help highlight inequalities and become a shared aspiration for social and political movements in the nineteenth century? You may include (but are not limited to): abolitionists and anti-slavery movements, labor movement and the expansion of democracy, and the women’s rights movements.

History Homework

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1.  Nothing That Boy Did

2.  Boots on the Porch

3.  Growing Up Black in Chicago

4.  Emmett in Chicago and “Little Mississippi”

5.  Pistol-Whipping at Christmas

6.  The Incident

7.  On the Third Day

8.  Mama Made the Earth Tremble

9.  Warring Regiments of Mississippi

10.  Black Monday

11.  People We Don’t Need Around Here Any More

12.  Fixed Opinions

13.  Mississippi Underground

14.  “There He Is”

15.  Every Last Anglo-Saxon One of You

16.  The Verdict of the World

17.  Protest Politics

18.  Killing Emmett Till

 Epilogue: The Children of Emmett Till


 About Timothy B. Tyson




for my brother Vern

My name is being called on the road to freedom. I can hear the
blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground. . . .When shall
we go? Not tomorrow! Not at high noon! Now!

REVEREND SAMUEL WELLS, Albany, Georgia, 1962



The older woman sipped her coffee. “I have thought and thought

about everything about Emmett Till, the killing and the trial, telling
who did what to who,” she said.1 Back when she was twenty-one and
her name was Carolyn Bryant, the French newspaper Aurore dubbed
the dark-haired young woman from the Mississippi Delta “a
crossroads Marilyn Monroe.”2 News reporters from Detroit to Dakar
never failed to sprinkle their stories about l’affaire Till with words like
“comely” and “fetching” to describe her. William Bradford Huie, the
Southern journalist and dealer in tales of the Till lynching, called her
“one of the prettiest black-haired Irish women I ever saw in my life.”3

Almost eighty and still handsome, her hair now silver, the former Mrs.
Roy Bryant served me a slice of pound cake, hesitated a little, and
then murmured, seeming to speak to herself more than to me,
“They’re all dead now anyway.” She placed her cup on the low glass
table between us, and I waited.

For one epic moment half a century earlier, Carolyn Bryant’s face
had been familiar across the globe, forever attached to a crime of
historic notoriety and symbolic power. The murder of Emmett Till was
reported in one of the very first banner headlines of the civil rights era
and launched the national coalition that fueled the modern civil rights
movement. But she had never opened her door to a journalist or
historian, let alone invited one for cake and coffee. Now she looked
me in the eyes, trying hard to distinguish between fact and
remembrance, and told me a story that I did not know.

The story I thought I knew began in 1955, fifty years earlier, when
Carolyn Bryant was twenty-one and a fourteen-year-old black boy
from Chicago walked into the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in a
rural Mississippi Delta hamlet and offended her. Perhaps on a dare,
the boy touched or even squeezed her hand when he exchanged money
for candy, asked her for a date, and said goodbye when he left the
store, tugged along by an older cousin. Few news writers who told the
story of the black boy and the backwoods beauty failed to mention
the “wolf whistle” that came next: when an angry Carolyn walked out
to a car to retrieve the pistol under the seat, Till supposedly whistled
at her.

The world knew this story only because of what happened a few
days later: Carolyn’s kinsmen, allegedly just her husband and brother-
in-law, kidnapped and killed the boy and threw his body in the
Tallahatchie River. That was supposed to be the end of it. Lesson
taught. But a young fisherman found Till’s corpse in the water, and a
month later the world watched Roy Bryant and J. W. “Big” Milam
stand trial for his murder.

I knew the painful territory well because when I was eleven years
old in the small tobacco market town of Oxford, North Carolina, a
friend’s father and brothers beat and shot a young black man to death.
His name was Henry Marrow, and the events leading up to his death
had something in common with Till’s. My father, a white Methodist
minister, got mixed up in efforts to bring peace and justice to the
community. We moved away that summer. But Oxford burned on in
my memory, and I later went back and interviewed the man most
responsible for Marrow’s death. He told me, “That nigger committed
suicide, coming in my store and wanting to four-letter-word my
daughter-in-law.” I also talked with many of those who had protested
the murder by setting fire to the huge tobacco warehouses in
downtown Oxford, as well as witnesses to the killing, townspeople,
attorneys, and others. Seeking to understand what had happened in
my own hometown made me a historian. I researched the case for
years, on my way to a PhD in American history, and in 2004
published a book about Marrow’s murder, what it meant for my
hometown and my family, and how it revealed the workings of race in

American history.4 Carolyn Bryant Donham had read the book, which
was why she decided to contact me and talk with me about the
lynching of Emmett Till.

The killing of Henry Marrow occurred in 1970, fifteen years after
the Till lynching, but unlike the Till case it never entered national or
international awareness, even though many of the same themes were
present. Like Till, Marrow had allegedly made a flirtatious remark to
a young white woman at her family’s small rural store. In Oxford,
though, the town erupted into arson and violence, the fires visible for
miles. An all-white jury, acting on what they doubtless perceived to be
the values of the white community, acquitted both of the men charged
in the case, even though the murder had occurred in public. What
happened in Oxford in 1970 was a late-model lynching, in which
white men killed a black man in the service of white supremacy. The
all-white jury ratified the murder as a gesture of protest against public
school integration, which had finally begun in Oxford, and underlying
much of the white protest was fear and rage at the prospect of white
and black children going to school together, which whites feared
would lead to other forms of “race-mixing,” even “miscegenation.”

As in the Marrow case, many white people believed Till had
violated this race-and-sex taboo and therefore had it coming. Many
news reports asserted that Till had erred—in judgment, in behavior, in
deed, and perhaps in thought. Without justifying the murder, a
number of Southern newspapers argued that the boy was at least
partially at fault. The most influential account of the lynching, Huie’s
1956 presumptive tell-all, depicted a black boy who virtually
committed suicide with his arrogant responses to his assailants.
“Boastful, brash,” Huie described Till. He “had a white girl’s picture
in his pocket and boasted of having screwed her,” not just to friends,
not just to Carolyn Bryant, but also to his killers: “That is why they
took him out and killed him.”5 The story was told and retold in many
ways, but a great many of them, from the virulently defensive
accounts of Mississippi and its customs to the self-righteous screeds of
Northern critics, noted that Till had been at the wrong place at the
wrong time and made the wrong choices.

Until recently historians did not even have a transcript of the 1955
trial. It went missing soon after the trial ended, turning up briefly in
the early 1960s but then destroyed in a basement flood. In September
2004 FBI agents located a faded “copy of a copy of a copy” in a
private home in Biloxi, Mississippi. It took weeks for two clerks to
transcribe the entire document, except for one missing page.6 The
transcript, finally released in 2007, allows us to compare the later
recollections of witnesses and defendants with what they said fifty
years earlier. It also reveals that Carolyn Bryant told an even harder-
edged story in the courtroom, one that was difficult to square with the
gentle woman sitting across from me at the coffee table.

Half a century earlier, above the witness stand in the Tallahatchie
County Courthouse, two ceiling fans slowly churned the cigarette
smoke. This was the stage on which the winner of beauty contests at
two high schools starred as the fairest flower of Southern
womanhood. She testified that Till had grabbed her hand forcefully
across the candy counter, letting go only when she snatched it away.
He asked her for a date, she said, chased her down the counter,
blocked her path, and clutched her narrow waist tightly with both

She told the court he said, “You needn’t be afraid of me. [I’ve],
well, ——with white women before.” According to the transcript, the
delicate young woman refused to utter the verb or even tell the court
what letter of the alphabet it started with. She escaped Till’s forceful
grasp only with great difficulty, she said.7 A month later one
Mississippi newspaper insisted that the case should never have been
called the “wolf whistle case.” Instead, said the editors, it should have
been called “an ‘attempted rape’ case.”8

“Then this other nigger came in from the store and got him by the
arm,” Carolyn testified. “And he told him to come on and let’s go. He
had him by the arm and led him out.” Then came an odd note in her
tale, a note discordant with the claim of aborted assault: Till stopped
in the doorway, “turned around and said, ‘Goodbye.’ ”9

The defendants sat on the court’s cane-bottom chairs in a room
packed with more than two hundred white men and fifty or sixty
African Americans who had been crowded into the last two rows and

the small, segregated black press table. In his closing statement, John
W. Whitten, counsel for the defendants, told the all-white, all-male
jury, “I’m sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage
to free these men, despite this [outside] pressure.”10

Mamie Bradley,I Till’s mother, was responsible for a good deal of
that outside pressure on Mississippi’s court system. Her brave decision
to hold an open-casket funeral for her battered son touched off news
stories across the globe. The resultant international outrage compelled
the U.S. State Department to lament “the real and continuing damage
to American foreign policy from such tragedies as the Emmett Till
case.”11 Her willingness to travel anywhere to speak about the tragedy
helped to fuel a huge protest movement that pulled together the
elements of a national civil rights movement, beginning with the
political and cultural power of black Chicago. The movement became
the most important legacy of the story.12 Her memoir of the case,
Death of Innocence, published almost fifty years after her son’s
murder, lets us see him as a human being, not merely the victim of one
of the most notorious hate crimes in history.13

•  •  •

As I sat drinking her coffee and eating her pound cake, Carolyn
Bryant Donham handed me a copy of the trial transcript and the
manuscript of her unpublished memoir, “More than a Wolf Whistle:
The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham.” I promised to deliver our
interview and these documents to the appropriate archive, where
future scholars would be able to use them. In her memoir she recounts
the story she told at the trial using imagery from the classic Southern
racist horror movie of the “Black Beast” rapist.14 But about her
testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered
obscenities, she now told me, “That part’s not true.”

A son of the South and the son of a minister, I have sat in countless
such living rooms that had been cleaned for guests, Sunday clothes on,
an unspoken deference running young to old, men to women, and,
very often, dark skin to light. As a historian I have collected a lot of
oral histories in the South and across all manner of social lines.

Manners matter a great deal, and the personal questions that oral
history requires are sometimes delicate. I was comfortable with the
setting but rattled by her revelation, and I struggled to phrase my next
question. If that part was not true, I asked, what did happen that
evening decades earlier?

“I want to tell you,” she said. “Honestly, I just don’t remember. It
was fifty years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem
true, but that part is not true.” Historians have long known about the
complex reliability of oral history—of virtually all historical sources,
for that matter—and the malleability of human memory, and her
confession was in part a reflection of that. What does it mean when
you remember something that you know never happened? She had
pondered that question for many years, but never aloud in public or in
an interview. When she finally told me the story of her life and starkly
different and much larger tales of Emmett Till’s death, it was the first
time in half a century that she had uttered his name outside her family.

Not long afterward I had lunch in Jackson, Mississippi, with Jerry
Mitchell, the brilliant journalist at the Clarion-Ledger whose sleuthing
has solved several cold case civil rights–era murders. I talked with him
about my efforts to write about the Till case, and he shared some
thoughts of his own. A few days after our lunch a manila envelope
with a Mississippi return address brought hard proof that “that part,”
as Carolyn had called the alleged assault, had never been true.

Mitchell had sent me copies of the handwritten notes of what
Carolyn Bryant told her attorney on the day after Roy and J.W. were
arrested in 1955. In this earliest recorded version of events, she
charged only that Till had “insulted” her, not grabbed her, and
certainly not attempted to rape her. The documents prove that there
was a time when she did seem to know what had happened, and a
time soon afterward when she became the mouthpiece of a monstrous

Now, half a century later, Carolyn offered up another truth, an
unyielding truth about which her tragic counterpart, Mamie, was also
adamant: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to

I. Mamie Carthan became Mamie Till after her marriage to Louis Till in 1940, which ended
with his death in 1945. Mamie Till became Mamie Mallory after a brief remarriage in 1946.
Her name changed to Bradley after another marriage in 1951. She was Mamie Bradley during
most of the years covered by this book. She married one last time in 1957, becoming Mamie
Till-Mobley, under which name she published her 2004 memoir. To avoid confusion, and also
to depict her as a human being rather than an icon, I generally refer to her by her first name.
No disrespect is intended. The same is true of Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant.



It was probably the gunshot-thud of boots on the porch that pulled

Reverend Moses Wright out of a deep sleep about two in the morning
on Sunday, August 28, 1955.1 Wright was a sixty-four-year-old
sharecropper, short and wiry with thick hands and a hawksbill nose.
An ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ, Wright
sometimes preached at the concrete-block church tucked into a cedar
thicket just a half mile away; most people called him “Preacher.”
Twenty-five white-tufted acres of cotton, almost ready for harvest,
stretched out behind his unpainted clapboard house in a pitch-black
corner of the Mississippi Delta called East Money.2 He had lived his
entire life in the Delta, and he had never had any trouble with white
people before.

The old but well-built house would be called a “shack” in a certain
stripe of sympathetic news story, but it was the nicest tenant house on
the G. C. Frederick Plantation. Mr. Frederick respected Reverend
Wright and let his family occupy the low-slung four-bedroom house
where he had lived himself before he built the main house. Its tin roof
sloped toward the persimmon and cedar trees that lined the dusty
road out front. A pleasant screened-in porch ran its entire face. From
the porch two front doors opened directly into two front bedrooms;
there were two smaller bedrooms stacked behind those.3

The accounts of what happened in the Wright home that morning
vary slightly, but the interviews given to reporters soon after the event
seem to be the most reliable. “Preacher! Preacher!” someone bellowed

from inside the screened porch. It was a white man’s voice. Wright sat
up in bed. “This is Mr. Bryant,” said another white man. “We want to
talk to the boy. We’re here to talk to you about that boy from
Chicago, the one that done the talking up at Money.”4 Wright thought
about grabbing his shotgun from the closet; instead he pulled on his
overalls and work boots and prepared to step outside.5

Still asleep were his three sons, Simeon, Robert, and Maurice; his
wife, Elizabeth; and three boys from Chicago visiting for the summer:
his two grandsons, Curtis Jones and Wheeler Parker Jr.; and his
nephew Emmett, whom they all called “Bobo.” Somehow Wright had
gotten wind of a story involving Bobo at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat
Market in Money. At first Wright had feared trouble might come of it,
but the vague details seemed trifling and convinced him that
repercussions were unlikely.6 Otherwise he would have put his niece’s
boy on the next train home. Now that he had angry white men at his
door, he decided to stall, hoping that Bobo would scamper out the
back door and hide. Then Wright would tell the men that the boy had
taken the train for Chicago on Saturday morning. “Who is it?” he
called out.7

In the darkness Wright heard rather than saw Elizabeth head
quickly for the two back rooms to wake the boys. Simeon slept in one
of the blue metal beds with his beloved cousin Bobo.8 Robert slept in
another bed in the same room. Curtis stayed by himself in the other
back room. In the second front bedroom the two sixteen-year-olds,
Wheeler and Maurice, shared a bed. Eight people in mortal danger.9

Elizabeth later told reporters, “We knew they were out to mob the
boy.” There was neither time nor necessity to talk about what to do.
Her only recourse was obvious: “When I heard the men at the door, I
ran to Emmett’s room and tried to wake him so I could get him out
the back door and into the cotton fields.”

Wright slowly stepped out of his bedroom and onto the porch,
closing the door behind him. In front of him stood a familiar white
man, six feet two inches and weighing 250 pounds. “That man was
Milam,” the minister said later. “I could see his bald head. I would
know him again anywhere. I would know him if I met him in

Texas.”10 In his left hand the imposing Milam carried a heavy five-cell
flashlight. He hefted a U.S. Army .45 automatic in his right.11

Wright did not recognize the rugged-looking man, six feet tall and
perhaps 190 pounds, who had identified himself as “Mr. Bryant” and
stood just behind Milam, though his small grocery store was not three
miles distant.12 Wright could see that he, too, carried a U.S. Army .45.
When both men pushed past him into the house, he could smell them;
at that point they had been drinking for hours.13

Standing by the door just inside the screened porch, a third man
turned his head to one side and down low, “like he didn’t want me to
see him, and I didn’t see him to recognize him,” the preacher said.14

Wright assumed the third man was black because he stayed in the
shadows, silent: “He acted like a colored man.”15 This was likely one
of the black men who worked for Milam. Or, if Wright’s intuition was
mistaken, it might have been a family friend of the Milam-Bryant
family, Elmer Kimbell or Hubert Clark, or their brother-in-law Melvin

Echoing Bryant, Milam said, “We want to see the boy from

Wright slowly and deliberately opened the other bedroom door, the
one leading into the front guest room where the two sixteen-year-olds
slept. The small room quickly became crowded and thick with the
odors of whiskey and sweat; faces, guns, and furnishings were caught
in the shaky and sparse illumination of Milam’s flashlight. “The house
was as dark as a thousand midnights,” Wheeler Parker recalled. “You
couldn’t see. It was like a nightmare. I mean—I mean someone come
stand over you with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight, and you’re
sixteen years old, it’s a terrifying experience.”18

Milam and Bryant told Wright to turn on some lights, but Wright
only mumbled something about the lights being broken.19 The wash
of the flashlight swept from Maurice to Wheeler and back to Wright.
The white men moved on. “They asked where the boy from Chicago
was,” recalled Maurice.20

“We marched around through two rooms,” Wright recounted.
Milam and Bryant, clearly impatient, may have suspected Wright was
stalling. Elizabeth had moved quickly to wake Emmett, but he moved

far too slowly. “They were already in the front door before I could
shake him awake,” she said.21

Now the two white men stood over the blue metal bedstead where
the fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago lay with his cousin. “Are you
the one who did the smart talking up at Money?” Milam demanded.

“Yeah,” said Emmett.
“Well, that was my sister-in-law and I won’t stand for it. And don’t

say ‘Yeah’ to me or I’ll blow your head off. Get your clothes on.”
Milam told Simeon to close his eyes and go back to sleep, while
Emmett pulled on a white T-shirt, charcoal gray pants, and black

Elizabeth offered them money if they would leave the boy alone.
Curtis thought Bryant might have accepted if he had been there
without his burly half-brother, but Milam yelled, “Woman, you get
back in the bed, and I want to hear them springs squeak.” With
unimaginable poise Wright quietly explained that the boy had suffered
from polio as a child and had never been quite right. He meant no
harm, but he just didn’t have good sense. “Why not give the boy a
good whipping and leave it at that? He’s only fourteen and he’s from
up North.”23

Milam turned to Wright and asked, “How old are you, Preacher?”
Wright answered that he was sixty-four. “You make any trouble,”

said Milam, “and you’ll never live to be sixty-five.”24

Milam and Bryant hauled the sleepy child out the front door
toward a vehicle waiting beyond the trees in the moonless Mississippi
night. Wright could hear the doors being opened, though no interior
light came on; then he thought he heard a voice ask “Is this the boy?”
and another voice answer “Yes.” He and others later speculated that
Carolyn Bryant had been in the vehicle and had identified Emmett,
thereby becoming an accessory to murder. But besides being dark it
was hard to hear the low voices through the trees, and Wright told
reporters at the time, “I don’t know if it was a lady’s voice or not.”
The vehicle pulled away without its headlights on, and nobody in the
house could tell whether it was a truck or a sedan.

After he heard the tires crackling through the gravel, Wright
stepped out into the yard alone and stared toward Money for a long




It was Reverend Wright who started the three Chicago boys, Emmett,

Curtis, and Wheeler, thinking about going to Mississippi that summer
of 1955, only a few days after Emmett turned fourteen. A former
parishioner, Robert Jones, who was the father-in-law of Wright’s
daughter, Willie Mae, had passed away in Chicago, and the family
asked Wright to conduct the funeral. While he was up north it was
decided that he would bring Wheeler and Emmett back to Mississippi
with him and that Curtis would join them soon afterward.1

The image of Wright in Chicago is one of the more pleasing in this
hard story. While he was in town he rode the elevated train, toured the
enormous Merchandise Mart and the downtown Loop, and gazed out
from atop the 462-foot Tribune Tower, which featured stones from the
Great Pyramid, the Alamo, and the Great Wall of China, among other
famous constructions. He enjoyed the sights but was hardly
dumbstruck. The city had its glories, he acknowledged, but he boasted
of the simple pleasures of rural life in the Delta. Four rivers—the
Yazoo, the Sunflower, the Yalobusha, and the Tallahatchie—passed
near his Mississippi home, and there were seven deep lakes. This
surely offered the best fishing in the world.2 His stories enchanted
Emmett. “For a free-spirited boy who lived to be outdoors,” Emmett’s
mother, Mamie, said, “there was so much possibility, so much
adventure in the Mississippi his great-uncle described.” Although
Mamie originally refused to let him go south, she soon relented under

a barrage of pressure from Emmett, who recruited support from the
extended family.3

One stock theme in stories of Emmett Till is that, being from the
North, he died in Mississippi because he just didn’t know any better.
How was a boy from Chicago supposed to know anything about
segregation or the battle lines laid down by white supremacy? It is
tempting to paint him, as his mother did, as innocent of the perilous
boundaries of race; her reasons for doing so made sense at the time,
even though being fourteen and abducted at gunpoint by adults would
seem evidence enough of his innocence. But it defies the imagination
that a fourteen-year-old from 1950s Chicago could really be ignorant
of the consequences of the color of his skin.

Race worked in different ways in Chicago than it did in
Mississippi, but there were similarities. After Emmett was murdered
one newspaper writer, Carl Hirsch, had the clarity of mind to note,
“The Negro children who live here on Chicago’s South Side or any
Northern ghetto are no strangers to the Jim Crow and the racist
violence.  .  .  . Twenty minutes from the Till home is Trumbull Park
Homes, where for two years a racist mob has besieged 29 Negro
families in a government housing project.” Emmett attended a
segregated, all-black school in a community “padlocked as a ghetto by
white supremacy.” Hirsch pointed out, “People everywhere are joining
to fight because of the way Emmett Till died—but also because of the
way he was forced to live.”4

There was at least one way that Chicago was actually more
segregated than Mississippi. A demographic map of the city in 1950
shows twenty-one distinct ethnic neighborhoods: German, Irish,
Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Czech and Slovak, Scottish, Polish,
Chinese, Greek, Yugoslavian, Russian, Mexican, French, and
Hungarian, among others.5 These ethnic groups divided Chicago
according to an unwritten treaty, which clearly stated that Germans,
for instance, would live on the North Side, Irish on the South Side,
Jews on the West Side, Bohemians and Poles on the Near Southwest
Side and Near Northwest Side, and African Americans in the South
Side’s “Black Belt.” All of these groups had gangs that regarded their

neighborhood as a place to be defended against encroachments by
outsiders. And the most visible outsiders were African Americans.

Black youngsters who walked through neighborhoods other than
their own did so at their peril. Those searching for places to play, in
parks and other public facilities, were especially vulnerable. These
were lessons that black children growing up on the South Side learned
with their ABCs.6

•  •  •

Like many of his contemporaries, Emmett loved baseball. “He was a
nice guy,” said thirteen-year-old Leroy Abbott, a teammate on the
Junior Rockets, their neighborhood baseball team. “And a good
pitcher—a lot of stuff on the ball.”7 With the White Sox and the Cubs
both in Chicago, it may seem odd that Emmett rooted for the
Brooklyn Dodgers, but for a young black baseball enthusiast they
were hard to resist. Brooklyn had not only broken the color barrier by
signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 but had also signed the catcher Roy
Campanella the next year and in 1949 acquired Don Newcombe,
Emmett’s hero. Newcombe soon became the first black pitcher to start
a World Series game and the first to win twenty games in a season.8

One night when Emmett was about twelve, Mamie sent him to the
store to buy a loaf of bread. He was ordinarily reliable about such
things, but on the way home he saw some boys playing baseball in the
park. He walked over to the backstop and talked his way into the
game. He planned to stay for a short time and then go home with the
bread; his mother might not even notice, he told himself. But his
passion for the game overcame him; he must have become absorbed in
the smell of the grass and the crack of the bat, the solid slap of the ball
into leather and the powdery dust of the base paths. “So, I guess he
just put down the bread and got in that game,” his mother recalled.
“And that’s exactly where I found Bo—Bo and that loaf of bread. Of
course, by that time, the bread kind of looked like the kids had been
using it for second base.”9

Emmett was a lovable, playful, and somewhat mischievous child
but essentially well-behaved. He spent his early years in Argo, less

than an hour’s train ride from his eventual home in Chicago, and was
unusually close to his mother and other family members. But he grew
up in one of the toughest and most segregated cities in America,
knowing as virtually every African American in Chicago knew that in
Trumbull Park black fathers kept loaded firearms in their home for
good reason. Emmett did not have to go to Mississippi to learn that
white folks could take offense even at the presence of a black child, let
alone one who violated local customs.

•  •  •

The City of New Orleans was the southbound train of the Illinois
Central Railway that would carry Emmett to Mississippi in August
1955. The Illinois Central connected Chicago to Mississippi not
merely by its daily arrivals and departures but also by tragedy, hope,
and the steel rails of history. Over the six decades from 1910 to 1970
some six million black Southerners departed Dixie for promised lands
all over America. Chicago, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote, became a
“receiving station and port of refuge” for more than half a million of
them, vast numbers of whom hailed from Mississippi. “The world of
Mississippi and the world of Chicago were intertwined and
interdependent,” writes the historian Isabel Wilkerson, “and what
happened in one did not easily escape notice of the other from afar.”
Straight up the line of the northbound Illinois Central the carloads of
pilgrims from the Delta would rumble, the floors littered with so many
empty pasteboard boxes that had been lovingly packed with food
from back home that people called it “the chicken bone express.”
These migrants brought with them musical, culinary, religious, and
community traditions that became a part of Chicago; in fact, the
narrow isthmus on the South Side where African Americans were

History Homework

Question 1: Tyson argues, “Race worked in different ways in Chicago than it did in Mississippi, but there were similarities.” Do you agree with the author? How was northern society similar or different from southern society regarding racial issues? Use specific examples from the book.

Question 2: In The Blood of Emmett Till, the role of the media is a central component of the story. Explain the role of the media before, during, and after the trial. How did newspapers and magazines shape the public response to the Till murder and trial?

N.B: You have to refer yourself to the book and use evidence from the book.

History Homework



Sugar Argumentative Essay

Student’s Name

University Affiliation



As early as 1473, sugar had become one of the most precious products in Europe. The increased demand for sugar led to the need for increased production of the same. However, growing and manufacturing the sugar to obtain the final product was a tremendous labor-intensive. People had to manually plat the crops, irrigate them, weed, harvest, and take them to the refineries for the final product to be obtained. Since the machines had not been invented yet, there was high demand for laborers for both the plantations and refineries (Muhammad, 2019). The demand for workers in the sugar plantations and refineries in America and Europe fueled slavery.

The enslaved people were forced to work 24 hours, seven days a week. If they did not obey, they were tortured with boxes full of nails, making it hard for the enslaved person to move. The enslaved population increased dramatically; on sugar estates, enslaved people doubled. The sugar business in Louisiana grew, gaining global acclaim, but it was primarily due to the work of slaves, who are rarely acknowledged. The number of African Americans outnumbered the number of whites in every single sugar parish. These enslaved people were forced to work 24 hours, seven days a week. If they did not obey, they were tortured with boxes full of nails, making it hard for the enslaved person to move.

Overall, the 1619 project demonstrates how slavery, segregation, and racism played a role in every facet of American life (Muhammad, 2019). I discovered that America was established mainly on slave labor, with the southern states basing their economies on slave labor to gain riches and economic prosperity. The 1619 project exposed wrongdoing against African Americans throughout our history.


Muhammad, K. G. (2019). The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold that fueled slavery.

West, J. M. (2008). Sugar and slavery: Molasses to Rum to slaves. Online. slaveryinamerica. Org.

History Homework

August 18, 2019

The 1619 Project

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 fi nally time to tell our story truthfully.


Editor’s Note by Jake Silverstein

It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our

country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who

can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however,

we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and

unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the

country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions

first came into the world, was in late August of 1619? Though the exact

date has been lost to history (it has come to be observed on Aug. 20),

that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of

Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival

inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for

the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s

original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew

nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its eco-

nomic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and

popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its

astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the exam-

ple it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang,

its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that

continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted

long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as

our founders formally declared independence from Britain.

The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New

York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to

reframe American history by considering what it would mean to


regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to

place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black

Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about

who we are as a country.

Perhaps you need some persuading. The issue contains essays on

different aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incar-

ceration 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.

Alongside the essays, you will find 17 literary works that bring

to life key moments in African-American history. These works are

all original compositions by contemporary black writers who were

asked to choose events on a timeline of the past 400 years. The

poetry and fiction they created is arranged chronologically through-

out the issue, and each work is introduced by the history to which

the author is responding.

A word of warning: There is gruesome material in these pages,

material that readers will find disturbing. That is, unfortunately, as

it must be. American history cannot be told truthfully without a clear

vision of how inhuman and immoral the treatment of black Americans

has been. By acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to

understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can

prepare ourselves for a more just future.

That is the hope of this project.



Page 28 . . . . . . . Clint Smith on the Middle Passage

Page 29 . . . . . . . Yusef Komunyakaa on Crispus Attucks

Page 42 . . . . . . . Eve L. Ewing on Phillis Wheatley

Page 43 . . . . . . . Reginald Dwayne Betts on the Fugitive

Slave Act of 1793

Page 46 . . . . . . . Barry Jenkins on Gabriel’s Rebellion

Page 47 . . . . . . . Jesmyn Ward on the Act Prohibiting

Importation of Slaves

Page 58 . . . . . . . Tyehimba Jess on Black Seminoles

Page 59 . . . . . . . Darryl Pinckney on the Emancipation

Proclamation of 1863

400 Years: A Literary Timeline


Page 59 . . . . . . . ZZ Packer on the New Orleans massacre of 1866

Page 68 . . . . . . . Yaa Gyasi on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment

Page 69 . . . . . . . Jacqueline Woodson on Sgt. Isaac Woodard

Page 78 . . . . . . . Rita Dove and Camille T. Dungy on the 16th Street

Baptist Church bombing

Page 79 . . . . . . . Joshua Bennett on the Black Panther Party

Page 84 . . . . . . . Lynn Nottage on the birth of hip-hop

Page 84 . . . . . . . Kiese Laymon on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s

“rainbow coalition” speech

Page 85 . . . . . . . Clint Smith on the Superdome after

Hurricane Katrina

T he 1619 Project / Introduction, Pa g
by N kole Hannah-Jones, Page 14 / Ca
Page 30 / A Broken Health Care Sys
Page 44 / raffi c, by Kevin M. Kruse, P
by Jamelle Bouie, Page 50 / Medical I
Page 56 / American Popular Music, b
by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Page 7
Stevenson, Page 80 / he Wealth Ga p
a photo essay, by Djeneba Aduayom,


Behind the Cover

We commissioned the photographer Dannielle Bowman to

photograph 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. So many of our

national narratives feature the arrival of ships to the New World

(Christopher Columbus, Plymouth Rock), and yet this arrival,

of these “twenty and odd Negroes” in 1619, has generally been

left out of our founding myths. Rarely is the disembarking of

these people treated with grandeur. We wanted to change that.

Photograph by Dannielle Bowman for The New York Times.

Beyond this issue, you’ll also find a special section in today’s

newspaper on the history of slavery, made in partnership with the

Smithsonian, and an article in the Sports section considering

the legacy of slavery in professional sports; on Aug. 20, ‘‘The Daily’’

begins a multipart 1619 audio series; and starting this week,

in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, The Times is introducing

a curriculum and educational outreach effort to bring this

material to students (for information, see the inside back cover).

Look for more #1619project updates in the weeks ahead.

The 1619 Project Continues

a ge 4 / he Idea of America,
Capitalism, by Matthew Desmond,
ystem, by Jeneen Interlandi,
, Page 48 / Undemocratic Democracy,
l Inequality, by L nda Villarosa,
, by Wesl ey Morris, Page 60 / Sugar,

e 70 / Mass Incarceration, by Bryan
a p, by rymai ne Lee, Page 82 / Hope,
, Page 86 / Contributors 10 / Puzzles 94, 96, 97 / Puzzles Answers 97 / Endpaper 98

The Fund II team learned quickly that mentorships, scholarships

and internships opened the widest doors to prosperity. To that

end, Fund II created internX, a platform to connect students

studying science, technology, engineering or math with companies

searching for STEM talent. internX disproves the notion that quali-

fied black and brown tech interns donít exist, while helping interns

learn skills, find mentors and gather the experience crucial for

developing careers and building wealth.

Changing Lives,
One Grant at a Time

usiness leader and philanthropist Robert F. Smith

inspired the world with his 2019 commencement pledge

to pay off the student debt for nearly 400 graduates at

Morehouse College in Atlanta. Smithís pledge was a personal

one, on behalf of his family, which has been part of the American

fabric for eight generations. The gift also focused a public spot-

light on Fund II Foundation, a private charitable organization

founded in 2014 to grant to public charities the assets of a

reserve established when Smithís Vista Equity Partners raised its

first private equity fund in 2000.

Fund II Foundation, which Smith leads as President and Found-

ing Director, has awarded nearly $250 million in grants in nine

disciplines: education, social justice, environment, digitization,

career readiness, health, music and arts appreciation, cultural

preservation and veteransí affairs. Its grantees include non-profits

that train veterans and young adults for technology careers,

promote youth environmental service and teach young people

how to preserve historic and culturally significant landmarks.

Through grants and signature in-house programs, Fund II has

touched more than 1.2 million people nationwide.

Cradle to Greatness
The foundationís signature philosophy, Cradle to Greatness, offers

a framework to measure the success of grantees, determine those

in need of additional help and accelerate access to that help. This

enables Fund II to go deeper, investing in overlooked and underes-

timated communities, considering many pathways to success,

from birth to a career, and even promoting business ownership.

ìOur Cradle to Greatness framework rekindles hope and pros-

perity in communities often besieged by neglect and violence,î says

Smith. ìWhat we want our kids to know in every domain of their

lives ó on this earth, in the home, on the job, at school, everywhere

they turn ó is that they are worthy.î




$39.5 million
The amount Fund II has spent on

cultural preservation

$24 million
The amount Fund II has awarded in music

& arts appreciation grants

$16.52 million
The amount Fund II has spent on career


$89.81 million
The amount Fund II has awarded in grants

on education and scholarships

1.2 million
The number of people in the U.S.

touched by Fund II grants and programs

$241 million
The amount of grants awarded by Fund II



This is not only the right thing to do but also smart, says Linda

Wilson, the executive director of Fund II Foundation. A recent

national economics poll determined that black and brown Ameri-

cans hold a combined buying power of $2.8 trillion, and of those

spenders, half in each group are under 35. ìThey are the future and

the most untapped talent force of our nation,î says Ivana Jackson,

the internX program manager.

Started in 2018, internX has a goal of placing 1,000 interns this

year and 10,000 in 2020. But Fund IIís commitment to young people

of color doesnít stop with STEM careers; its attention to music, art

and environmental education is every bit as strong. ìMusic and art

provide balance to young people,î Wilson says, ìinstilling a sense of

peace while increasing aptitude.î

Restoration Retreat
In 2018, Fund II developed yet another signature program, one that

allows young people to commune with nature, while also ìproviding

much needed respite to heal and inspire,î Wilson says. For its inau-

gural event, Restoration Retreat hosted 35 boys of color from tough

circumstances on a retreat to the Colorado Rocky Mountains. They

received life-skills coaching, financial literacy and entrepreneurial

training, as well as instruction in mentorship, yoga and meditation.

They also pursued outdoor adventures like archery, fly fishing,

hiking and horseback riding.

This yearís event included a separate retreat for girls. They each

Programs like Restoration Retreat create inspiring scenes that Fund

II leaders intend to replicate nationwide: children of color participating

and excelling in careers, stewardship and life. ìWe at Fund II are

committed to ensuring African Americans prosper through scientific,

political, cultural and social capital. We are proud of our grantees and

collaborators because their work pays tribute to our ancestors who are


With creative works from:

Trymaine Lee, 82

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, 70Wesley Morris, 60

Jesmyn Ward
Rita Dove
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Yusef Komunyakaa

Kiese Laymon
Clint Smith
ZZ Packer

Camille T. Dungy
Yaa Gyasi
Eve L. Ewing
Darryl Pinckney

L ynn Nottage, 84

Jamelle Bouie, 50

Dannielle Bowman, 98 Jeneen Interlandi, 44

L inda Villarosa, 58

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Page 14

is a staff writer for the magazine.

A 2017 MacArthur fellow, she has
won a National Magazine Award,
a Peabody Award and a George
Polk Award.

Lynn Nottage, Page 84

is a playwright and screenwriter.
She has received two Pulitzer
Prizes and a MacArthur fellowship,
and she is currently an associate
professor at Columbia School of
the Arts.

Trymaine Lee, Page 82

is a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy
Award-winning journalist and a
correspondent for MSNBC.
He covers social-justice issues
and the role of race in politics
and law enforcement.

Dannielle Bowman, Page 98

is a visual artist working with
photography. She is an artist in
residence at Baxter Street Camera
Club of New York, where she
will have a solo show in January.

Jeneen Interlandi, Page 44

is a member of The Times’s
editorial board and a staff writer
for the magazine. Her last
article for the magazine was
about teaching in the age
of school shootings.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Page 70

is a Suzanne Young Murray
professor at the Radcliffe Institute
for Advanced Study at Harvard
University and author of ‘‘The
Condemnation of Blackness.’’

Wesley Morris, Page 60

is a staff writer for the magazine,
a critic at large for The New
York Times and a co-host of the
podcast ‘‘Still Processing.’’ He
was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer
Prize for criticism.

Linda Villarosa, Page 58

directs the journalism program at
the City College of New York and is a
contributing writer for the magazine.
Her feature on black infant and
maternal mortality was a finalist for
a National Magazine Award.


N kole Hannah-Jones, Page 14

Barry Jenkins
Jacqueline Woodson

Adam Pendleton, 14

Joshua Bennett, 79 Kevin M. Kruse, 48

Bryan Stevenson, 80 Djeneba duayom, 86

Jamelle Bouie, Page 50

is a Washington-based New York
Times opinion columnist and
a political analyst for CBS News.
He covers campaigns, elections,
national affairs and culture.

Djeneba Aduayom, Page 86

is a photographer in Los Angeles
known for her portraiture inspired
by her career as a dancer.

Tyehimba Jess, Page 58

is a poet from Detroit who teaches
at the College of Staten Island.
He is the author of two books of
poetry, ‘‘Leadbelly’’ and ‘‘Olio,’’
for which he received the 2017
Pulitzer Prize.

Kevin M. Kruse, Page 48

is a professor of history at
Princeton University and the author
of ‘‘White Flight: Atlanta and the
Making of Modern Conservatism.’’

Contributors’ bios
continue on Page 95.

Bryan Stevenson, Page 80

is the executive director of the
Equal Justice Initiative and
the author of ‘‘Just Mercy: A Story
of Justice and Redemption.’’

Adam Pendleton, Page 14

is an artist known for conceptually
rigorous and formally inventive
paintings, collages, videos and
installations that address history
and contemporary culture.

Joshua Bennett, Page 79

is an assistant professor of English
and creative writing at Dartmouth
College and the author of ‘‘The
Sobbing School.’’ His poetry book
‘‘Owed’’ will be published in 2020.

Tyehimba Jess, 58

11Photographs by Kathy Ryan

Special thanks: To bring The 1619 Project to non-Times subscribers, we have printed hundreds of thousands of additional copies
of this issue, as well as of today’s special newspaper section, for distribution at libraries, schools and museums.
This would not have been possible without the generous support of donors: Wilson Chandler, John Legend
on behalf of the Show Me Campaign, Ekpe Udoh, Gabrielle Union, Fund II Foundation and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal
Defense and Educational Fund.

Our founding ideals of
liberty and equality
were false when they
were written. Black
Americans fought to
make them true.
Without this struggle,
America would have
no democracy at all.

By Nikole Hannah-Jones

Artwork by Adam Pendleton

August 18, 2019


T he 1619 Project


My dad always fl ew an American
fl ag in our front yard. The blue
paint on our two- story house was
perennially chipping; the fence, or
the rail by the stairs, or the front
door, existed in a perpetual state of
disrepair, but that fl ag always fl ew
pristine. Our corner lot, which had
been redlined by the federal gov-
ernment, was along the river that
divided the black side from the
white side of our Iowa town. At the
edge of our lawn, high on an alu-
minum pole, soared the fl ag, which
my dad would replace as soon as it
showed the slightest tatter.

My dad was born into a family
of sharecroppers on a white plan-
tation in Greenwood, Miss., where
black people bent over cotton from
can’t- see- in- the- morning to can’t-
see- at- night, just as their enslaved
ancestors had done not long before.
The Mississippi of my dad’s youth
was an apartheid state that subju-
gated its near- majority black pop-
ulation through breathtaking acts
of violence. White residents in Mis-
sissippi lynched more black people
than those in any other state in the
country, and the white people in
my dad’s home county lynched
more black residents than those
in any other county in Mississippi,
often for such ‘‘crimes’’ as entering
a room occupied by white women,
bumping into a white girl or trying
to start a sharecroppers union. My
dad’s mother, like all the black peo-
ple in Greenwood, could not vote,
use the public library or fi nd work
other than toiling in the cotton fi elds
or toiling in white people’s houses.
So in the 1940s, she packed up her
few belongings and her three small
children and joined the fl ood of
black Southerners fl eeing North.
She got off the Illinois Central Rail-
road in Waterloo, Iowa, only to have
her hopes of the mythical Promised
Land shattered when she learned
that Jim Crow did not end at the
Mason- Dixon line.

Grandmama, as we called her,
found a house in a segregated black
neighborhood on the city’s east side
and then found the work that was
considered black women’s work no
matter where black women lived
— cleaning white people’s houses.
Dad, too, struggled to fi nd promise
in this land. In 1962, at age 17, he

signed up for the Army. Like many
young men, he joined in hopes of
escaping poverty. But he went into
the military for another reason as
well, a reason common to black
men: Dad hoped that if he served
his country, his country might fi nal-
ly treat him as an American.

The Army did not end up being
his way out. He was passed over for
opportunities, his ambition stunt-
ed. He would be discharged under
murky circumstances and then
labor in a series of service jobs for
the rest of his life. Like all the black
men and women in my family, he
believed in hard work, but like all
the black men and women in my
family, no matter how hard he
worked, he never got ahead.

So when I was young, that fl ag
outside our home never made sense
to me. How could this black man,
having seen fi rsthand the way his
country abused black Americans,
how it refused to treat us as full citi-
zens, proudly fl y its banner? I didn’t
understand his patriotism. It deeply
embarrassed me.

I had been taught, in school,
through cultural osmosis, that the
fl ag wasn’t really ours, that our his-
tory as a people began with enslave-
ment and that we had contributed
little to this great nation. It seemed
that the closest thing black Amer-
icans could have to cultural pride
was to be found in our vague con-
nection to Africa, a place we had
never been. That my dad felt so
much honor in being an American
felt like a marker of his degradation,
his acceptance of our subordination.

Like most young people, I thought
I understood so much, when in fact I
understood so little. My father knew
exactly what he was doing when he
raised that fl ag. He knew that our
people’s contributions to build-
ing the richest and most powerful
nation in the world were indelible,
that the United States simply would
not exist without us.

In August 1619, just 12 years after
the English settled Jamestown, Va.,
one year before the Puritans land-
ed at Plymouth Rock and some 157
years before the English colonists
even decided they wanted to form
their own country, the Jamestown
colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved
Africans from English pirates. The

pirates had stolen them from a Por-
tuguese slave ship that had forcibly
taken them from what is now the
country of Angola. Those men and
women who came ashore on that
August day were the beginning of
American slavery. They were among
the 12.5 million Africans who would
be kidnapped from their homes and
brought in chains across the Atlantic
Ocean in the largest forced migra-
tion in human history until the Sec-
ond World War. Almost two million
did not survive the grueling journey,
known as the Middle Passage.

Before the abolishment of the
international slave trade, 400,000
enslaved Africans would be sold into
America. Those individuals and their
descendants transformed the lands
to which they’d been brought into
some of the most successful colonies
in the British Empire. Through back-
breaking labor, they cleared the land
across the Southeast. They taught
the colonists to grow rice. They
grew and picked the cotton that at
the height of slavery was the nation’s
most valuable commodity, account-
ing for half of all American exports
and 66 percent of the world’s supply.
They built the plantations of George
Washington, Thomas Jeff erson and
James Madison, sprawling proper-
ties that today attract thousands of
visitors from across the globe cap-
tivated by the history of the world’s
greatest democracy. They laid the
foundations of the White House and
the Capitol, even placing with their
unfree hands the Statue of Freedom
atop the Capitol dome. They lugged
the heavy wooden tracks of the rail-
roads that crisscrossed the South
and that helped take the cotton
they picked to the Northern textile
mills, fueling the Industrial Revo-
lution. They built vast fortunes for
white people North and South — at
one time, the second- richest man in
the nation was a Rhode Island ‘‘slave
trader.’’ Profi ts from black people’s
stolen labor helped the young nation
pay off its war debts and fi nanced
some of our most prestigious uni-
versities. It was the relentless buy-
ing, selling, insuring and fi nancing
of their bodies and the products of
their labor that made Wall Street
a thriving banking, insurance and
trading sector and New York City
the fi nancial capital of the world.

But it would be historically inac-
curate to reduce the contributions
of black people to the vast materi-
al wealth created by our bondage.
Black Americans have also been,
and continue to be, foundational
to the idea of American freedom.
More than any other group in this
country’s history, we have served,
generation after generation, in an
overlooked but vital role: It is we
who have been the perfecters of
this democracy.

The United States is a nation
founded on both an ideal and a lie.
Our Declaration of Independence,
signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims
that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and
‘‘endowed by their Creator with cer-
tain unalienable rights.’’ But the white
men who drafted those words did not
believe them to be true for the hun-
dreds of thousands of black people
in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply
to fully one-fi fth of the country. Yet
despite being violently denied the
freedom and justice promised to all,
black Americans believed fervently
in the American creed. Through cen-
turies of black resistance and protest,
we have helped the country live up
to its founding ideals. And not only
for ourselves — black rights strug-
gles paved the way for every other
rights struggle, including women’s
and gay rights, immigrant and dis-
ability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous
and patriotic eff orts of black Amer-
icans, our democracy today would
most likely look very diff erent — it
might not be a democracy at all.

The very fi rst person to die for
this country in the American Revo-
lution was a black man who himself
was not free. Crispus Attucks was
a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave
his life for a new nation in which
his own people would not enjoy the
liberties laid out in the Declaration
for another century. In every war
this nation has waged since that fi rst
one, black Americans have fought —
today we are the most likely of all
racial groups to serve in the United
States military.

My father, one of those many
black Americans who answered
the call, knew what it would take me
years to understand: that the year
1619 is as important to the American














August 18, 2019


story as 1776. That black Americans,
as much as those men cast in alabas-
ter in the nation’s capital, are this
nation’s true ‘‘founding fathers.’’
And that no people has a greater
claim to that fl ag than us.

In June 1776, Thomas Jeff erson sat
at his portable writing desk in a
rented room in Philadelphia and
penned these words: ‘‘We hold
these truths to be self- evident, that
all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness.’’ For the
last 243 years, this fi erce assertion
of the fundamental and natural
rights of humankind to freedom
and self- governance has defi ned

our global reputation as a land of
liberty. As Jeff erson composed his
inspiring words, however, a teenage
boy who would enjoy none of those
rights and liberties waited nearby to
serve at his master’s beck and call.
His name was Robert Hemings, and
he was the half brother of Jeff erson’s
wife, born to Martha Jeff erson’s
father and a woman he owned. It
was common for white enslavers
to keep their half-black children
in slavery. Jeff erson had chosen
Hemings, from among about 130
enslaved people that worked on the
forced- labor camp he called Monti-
cello, to accompany him to Philadel-
phia and ensure his every comfort as
he drafted the text making the case
for a new democratic republic based
on the individual rights of men.

At the time, one-fi fth of the pop-
ulation within the 13 colonies strug-
gled under a brutal system of slavery
unlike anything that had existed in
the world before. Chattel slavery
was not conditional but racial. It
was heritable and permanent, not
temporary, meaning generations
of black people were born into it
and passed their enslaved status
onto their children. Enslaved peo-
ple were not recognized as human
beings but as property that could
be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold,
used as collateral, given as a gift and
disposed of violently. Jeff erson’s fel-
low white colonists knew that black
people were human beings, but
they created a network of laws and
customs, astounding for both their
precision and cruelty, that ensured

that enslaved people would never
be treated as such. As the abolition-
ist William Goodell wrote in 1853,
‘‘If any thing founded on falsehood
might be called a science, we might
add the system of American slavery
to the list of the strict sciences.’’

Enslaved people could not legal-
ly marry. They were barred from
learning to read and restricted
from meeting privately in groups.
They had no claim to their own chil-
dren, who could be bought, sold and
traded away from them on auction
blocks alongside furniture and cattle
or behind storefronts that advertised
‘‘Negroes for Sale.’’ Enslavers and the
courts did not honor kinship ties to
mothers, siblings, cousins. In most
courts, they had no legal standing.
Enslavers could rape or murder their

An 1872 portrait of African-Americans serving in Congress (from left): Hiram Revels, the first black man elected to
the Senate; Benjamin S. Turner; Robert C. De Large; Josiah T. Walls; Jefferson H. Long; Joseph H. Rainy; and R. Brown Elliot.

T he 1619 Project


property without legal consequence.
Enslaved people could own nothing,
will nothing and inherit nothing.
They were legally tortured, includ-
ing by those working for Jeff erson
himself. They could be worked to
death, and often were, in order to
produce the highest profi ts for the
white people who owned them.

Yet in making the argument
against Britain’s tyranny, one of the
colonists’ favorite rhetorical devic-
es was to claim that they were the
slaves — to Britain. For this duplic-
ity, they faced burning criticism
both at home and abroad. As Sam-
uel Johnson, an English writer and
Tory opposed to American inde-
pendence, quipped, ‘‘How is it that
we hear the loudest yelps for liberty
among the drivers of Negroes?’’

Conveniently left out of our
founding mythology is the fact
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. By 1776, Britain
had grown deeply confl icted over its
role in the barbaric institution that
had reshaped the Western Hemi-
sphere. In London, there were grow-
ing calls to abolish the slave trade.
This would have upended the econo-
my of the colonies, in both the North
and the South. The wealth and prom-
inence that allowed Jeff erson, at just
33, and the other founding fathers
to believe they could successfully
break off from one of the mightiest
empires in the world came from the

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