From the Director, Teaching and Justice, Tips on Teaching

Teaching 1619: A Challenge

by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

This year marks the 400th anniversary of what is often referred to as the start of American slavery — the documented selling of 20+ African human beings to British colonists in Jamestown, Virginia. While the transatlantic slave trade was alive well before this transaction, and while some have argued that focusing too much on 1619 as the “beginning” of American slavery is “misguided” (Guasco, 2017), the anniversary presents an occasion for examining just how inextricably linked slavery is to the beginnings of our nation. 

The most prominent effort to tell this history belongs to The New York Times’s The 1619 Project. A collection of essays and podcasts, the project aims to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are” (1619 Project). As a white American, I am grateful for the project, even when it challenges me and makes me uncomfortable. It is helping me to learn more deeply the ways in which this history continues to shape everyday lives in America, including my own. 

It also is urging me to think about the obligation we have, as members of a Jesuit university, to tell history justly and to help students understand the relationship between historical and present-day injustices and inequities. 

In recognition of this 400th anniversary, I am challenging us to “teach 1619” — to see the year and its significance as having something to do with our own disciplines and fields. You might do this in any number of ways, depending on your discipline, but here are just a few suggestions of ways to engage students around the events of 1619:  

  • Complicate students’ understanding of U.S. history by centering voices, texts, and narratives from 1619 in your own course(s), if it’s disciplinarily appropriate
  • Consider what was happening in your field in 1619, and whether/how those events intersected with (or avoided/erased) what was happening to African people across the globe 
  • Ask students to apply theories or concepts from your discipline to events and experiences from 1619
  • Invite students to traces the links between present-day racial inequities back to key moments from the last 400 years

If you take up the challenge to “teach 1619,” let us know what you did and how it goes in the comment section of this blog.


The 1619 Project. New York Times

Guasco, M. (2017). The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History.