Conservatives rail against New York Times project on America’s sordid slave past

An uproar over the newspaper's series exploring the nation's slave legacy, and the rich and varied contributions of black Americans.

Tanzania, Zanzibar Archipelago, Unguja island (Zanzibar), town of Zanzibar, Stone Town district, unesco world heritage, old slaves market.
CREDIT: Getty Images
Tanzania, Zanzibar Archipelago, Unguja island (Zanzibar), town of Zanzibar, Stone Town district, unesco world heritage, old slaves market. CREDIT: Getty Images

In a sweeping and ambitious journalistic project, the New York Times on Sunday launched its 1619 series, reframing the American story around a single, pivotal historical event: the arrival to America 400 years ago this month of the first enslaved Africans.

The premise of the groundbreaking initiative unveiled in the pages of the Sunday magazine is that the arrival of these captured Africans was the defining moment of American history.

Their bondage, enforced servitude, and struggle for equality became the leitmotif of our national narrative. The contributions of black Americans, the series posits, is the cornerstone on which the nation’s rich cultural legacy was built.


Needless to say, conservatives — many of whom can probably safely be considered Euro-centrists — simply weren’t having it. 

They revolted loudly against the notion that 1619, and not 1776, would be viewed as the seminal date in American history. And they seemed particularly nonplussed at the idea that African Americans, and not white Americans, were being put forward as the key contributors to the nation’s rich cultural heritage.

Conservative pundit Byron York, a political analyst with the Washington Examiner, said the entire project raised questions in his mind as to whether it even amounted to journalism.

More denunciations of the project emanated from the Twitter account of Newt Gingrich, the conservative former House Speaker, who called the entire project “propaganda.”


The former history professor and onetime Georgia lawmaker took the trouble to contradict New York Times columnist Mara Gay’s tweet celebrating the massive effort that drew in journalists from throughout the Times newsroom and outside contributors as well.

Twitter had an answer, however, for Gingrich.

Peter Shulman, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve, wrote that the former House Speaker is not exactly agnostic on the subject of the African slave trade.


“You wrote a dissertation about colonialism in the Belgian Congo while never going there once and only discussed the perspective of the white colonizers,” Shulman chided Gingrich in a tweet.

More angry denunciations of the Times came Sunday from the Twitter account of President Donald Trump, who railed against a “Racism Witch Hunt” by the newspaper, a possible reference to remarks made during a town hall held by New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet in which he told the staff that the daily would explore ways to thoughtfully examine issues of race in the coming months.

“How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven’t done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision. But I think that’s what we’re going to have to do for the rest of the next two years,” Baquet said, according to a leaked transcript of his remarks obtained by Slate.

The gathering of Times staff was convened amid handwringing in the newsroom over a botched New York Times headline in the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio which read “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”


That characterization of the tenor of the president’s remarks drew howls of protest and disbelief from much of the rest of the media establishment.

But one conservative commentator, never Trumper, and journalist David Frum, drew a thruline between the controversy over Trump’s remarks in the wake of the shooting massacres and the Times’ Sunday magnum opus.

Frum clapped back on Twitter that the president seemed to resent the spotlight being directed other than on him.


“Good morning America,” he mocked the president on Twitter. “I see many of you today talking about events tracing back 400 years. Stop that once! Return to talking about ME.”