UCHS Students Speak In Support of 1619 Project
By NANCY CAMBRIA
Director of Communications
University City High School students have a repeated history of speaking up and working with intention when it comes to combating social injustice.
Students have spoken out and peacefully demonstrated against school gun violence, marched against unfair racial bias in local policing, held clean-up initiatives to support local businesses in the aftermath of vandalism on the Loop after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, marched for potable drinking water in the U.S. and elsewhere, and advocated for equitable sustainability in University City.
And now, they've also found themselves at the epicenter of another politically charged debate on critical race theory, particularly the reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
On Thursday, June 10, the regional organization Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice invited recent UCHS graduate Jai’Den Smith to speak on a virtual panel with Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley and former University City High School English teacher Christina Christina Sneed about her learning experience with Hannah-Jone’s landmark report, The 1619 Project. More than 100 people from the St. Louis region attended the event, which was also broadcast on YouTube.
“The first thing that learning about the project did was in bringing us (students) closer together in a way that just learning about slavery could not do,” Smith said. “It fully makes you aware of where we are today and how none of (our current situation) is a coincidence. It’s all a result of slavery and it’s all a ripple effect.”
In August 2019, the New York Times reporter published the landmark piece in the newspaper’s Sunday Magazine. Marking the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of slaves to American shores, Hannah-Jones reframed American history in context of the importance of African Americans in the creation, prosperity and innovation of the United States of America.
She further shed light on the many areas in which slavery, discrimination and African-American history have been sanitized in history books and the lasting effects of inequity and racism in our culture. The work was so compelling that Sneed, then an eleventh grade AP English and Composition teacher, worked the project into her year-long 2019-20 class as students studied and wrote about alternative narratives of history and their impact on present day America. She and her students’ work has since been highlighted in the St. Louis Journalism Review and by the Pulitzer Center, an international center on reporting which has advanced teaching the 1619 Project in schools.
As the students immersed themselves in the project, the project itself became a flashpoint, particularly among conservatives who continue to attack the project and critical race theory. Within the past year conservative lawmakers in several states have tried to advance bills to ban the 1619 Project from being taught in public schools. This fall and spring, several lawmakers in Missouri introduced similar legislation. Advocates for the bill said that history should focus on kindness, not division and that the project stirs up controversy on events that have little to do with current history.
This has not sat well with Sneed’s students. Indeed, Smith said in her panel talk that the project brought a diverse group of students from different backgrounds together as they discussed issues of privilege, cultural bias and even colorism (bias related to skin tone) in the African American community. The project was not divisive, but uniting, Smith said.
“It’s appalling to many students like me that something so valuable, something so critical of traditional teaching should be banned simply because it paints an unpleasant picture of the past that still exists in today’s world. The effects of slavery are not confined to the past,just as tears in the fabric of a quilt are not eliminated by sewing torn pieces back together,” Ian Feld, Class of 2021
“It really brought us closer together and allowed us to really dive into some deep stuff,” she said. “It’s the truth and it’s our history, and it’s fact, and it needs to be discussed and dissected. It has a great benefit to learning about something so heavy.”
Smith was not the only student to speak out. As things heated up at the Missouri state capitol earlier this year, Ian Feld, Class of ‘21, penned a powerful opinion piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about he and his classmates' experiences while studying the The 1619 Project. It was entitled “University City High School students were captivated, not indoctrinated.”
“It’s appalling to many students like me that something so valuable, something so critical of traditional teaching should be banned simply because it paints an unpleasant picture of the past that still exists in today’s world. The effects of slavery are not confined to the past, just as tears in the fabric of a quilt are not eliminated by sewing torn pieces back together,” Feld wrote in the Post-Dispatch.
Sneed, who is now the director of the District’s K-12 social studies curriculum, said the 1619 Project is rich material for learning and yet another part of the growing canon of works to be studied regarding the African American experience.
“Texts like the 1619 Project have been a part of our system of education from the beginning of time. And, if we look back at the work of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B Du Bois and Dr. Martin Luther King - if we look at all of the powerful rhetorical traditions from the Black community - we will see that we need to study texts that are from the voices of Black/brown people and Black women. And, from the perspective of this teacher, we just don’t do it enough,” Sneed said.
Sneed said her student’s work and discussions spread throughout University City High School, and numerous teachers began using parts of the project in their classes - all to the great benefit of teachers and students. Hardin-Bartley said the1619 Project and the powerful connections and discussions forged among the students across lines of race and privilege should not be dismissed. It’s rather the hallmark of learning and community.
“I have seen these young people stand boldly and proudly and speak their truth in a heartfelt way, and I would argue that in our society we need that humanity back,” Hardin-Bartley said.
- Read Ian Feld's opinion piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch here.
- See the entire Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice talk featuring Jai'Den Smith, Superintendent Hardin-Bartley, and educator Christina Sneed, here.
- Read the 1619 Project
- Read the District's PRIDE article on our district students being featured in the Gateway Journalism Review here.
- Read the students' work published in the Gateway Journalism review here.
- Read the District's PRIDE article on our students developing an Alexa skill on Black Lives Matter in response to their coursework on the 1619 Prohject here.