University City’s 1619 Project Book Study Group Garners National Appeal
In honor of February’s Black History Month, the District’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction wanted to do something big and different that also recognized the current political climate regarding the teaching of Black history in public schools. So, they partnered with the University City Public Library to conduct a deep dive into Nikole Hannah-Jones’ new book, “The 1619 Project,” through a community book study group.
The interest was instant and overwhelming. More than 275 people signed up to participate in the virtual sessions. Word of the event spread far beyond the boundaries of University City. Participants hailed from as far as California, Wisconsin, Georgia and New York.
The group met virtually on four Friday evenings in February. Each session featured a guest speaker, facilitated discussions in small chat rooms and a running document on a virtual Padlet to spark discussion and capture thoughts and individual opinions. Weather pending, the group planned to culminate the book study on Feb. 28 with an in-person, outdoor Fireside Chat in University City High School’s Lions’ Den courtyard to celebrate their discussions and takeaways from the experience.
The book study group was the brainchild of Christina Sneed, PreK-12 communication arts coordinator, who had previously included Hannah-Jones’ texts in an AP Course for her Advanced English and Language Arts students. Sneed said the large interest clearly indicated our region and our country have an appetite for discussion beyond political rhetoric.
“I think that it really just reinforces the idea that U. City is a district that is not only willing, but encourages harder conversations,” Sneed said. “We are willing to advocate for students and push everyone to think critically and openly while engaging in deep conversation about issues impacting our community.”
University City High School student Mouhamed Ly, an 11th-grader who was also a small group facilitator in the meetings, said he found a surprisingly diverse community in the group willing to listen and intent on improving systems for racial equity.
“It was nice to have so many different perspectives and generations on Zoom because it challenges our ideas and creates an environment of healthy disagreements where we weren’t just talking in an echo chamber or heard the same things we hear all the time,” Ly said.
In November 2021, “The 1619 Project” was published amid divisive rancor about the teaching of Black American history in public schools nationwide. In Missouri, efforts continue in the state legislature to ban curriculum featuring the content of both Hannah-Jones’ landmark book and her earlier articles originally published in The New York Times in August 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving to the shores of North America.
1619: America’s Origin?
“The 1619 Project” asks readers to envision the formative start of America history on that fateful day early colonists introduced slavery into the daily fabric of the making of America. The nation’s founding, Hannah-Jones argues, is critically entwined with the legacy of slavery and systemic racism as well as the contributions of African Americans to the growth, culture and prosperity of the United States. America would likely be a lot different without the contributions of generations of the Black community, Ly concluded.
“A lot of Black people all throughout history have contributed and helped the economy grow, both locally and globally,” he said. “Even in heavily segregated times, Black people contributed a lot to the creation of this country. If it wasn’t for them, we would not be in the position we are now.”
Trish Sandler, a parent of a Brittany Woods student, said it’s important that difficult stories from our nation’s past are heard in respect of the District’s Black children and families, and also important for all children and families to fully understand the American experience.
“I think, for me, American history and the way it was taught to me as a kid, and, I think, even how it is taught today, is so one-dimensional. There’s not a true representation of people’s true lived experiences,” Sandler said. “These ideals of equality and freedom – all of the terms that get thrown around about our American history – they really weren’t meant for everyone, just a select group of people.”
“We Were Not Indoctrinated”
Despite the rising controversy surrounding it, the District has not shied away from teaching Hannah-Jones’ work nor talking about it. (Indeed, many Missouri public school districts, including The School District of University City, have been polled by a conservative think tank through a Freedom of Information request to determine and publicize the schools that teach “The 1619 Project.” Proponents of banning the content have also asked private citizens to call school districts, investigate and report if “The 1619 Project” is taught in particular schools.)
Well before the current controversy, Sneed introduced the New York Times’ 1619 Project magazine in the 2019-20 school year to her AP English and Composition class as part of a year-long thematic study of different narratives of American history. As published in previous issues of PRIDE, students created thoughtful final projects focusing on topics about race in their lives, their local community and beyond. They included documentaries on colorism bias in African American and American culture; the underlying issues of race and class in University City’s ongoing issue of residents choosing private over public schooling; and perceptions of police among Black and white students as they grow from childhood into adulthood.
Sneed’s students were also invited to write articles about their projects in The Gateway Journalism Review, a regional publication. In the summer of 2020, several students from the class went on to produce an Alexa Skill on the Black Lives Matter movement which can now be accessed by Alexa users around the globe.
As the controversy over the 1619 Project grew political in the past year, students in Sneed’s class vocalized their support. Ian Feld, UCHS Class of 2021, now a freshman at Grinnell College, wrote an op-ed published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch against “modern day book burning,” in which he argued, “We students were not taught exclusively by it; we were not indoctrinated; but we were captivated. We examined and connected with it, criticized and scrutinized its claims, and we left our junior year of high school with a better understanding of how America feels to people whose generational histories have been left in the margins.”
Jai’Den Smith, UCHS Class of 2021, now a freshman at Jackson State University, spoke about the experience of studying “The 1619 Project” to more than 100 listeners in a virtual panel discussion hosted by Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. She was accompanied by Sneed and Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley on the panel. Sneed said Smith’s remarks discounted the conservative argument that teaching authentic Black history in schools creates unhealthy and divisive tensions among students.
“Jai’Den highlighted how this study unified her and her peers,” Sneed said. “She really appreciated the opportunity to talk about seemingly controversial topics with her peers in a safe space where, even if they all didn’t agree, they were able to listen to others’ perspectives and expand their understanding. As a result, they grow closer together through the process, even though students in the class came from very different circumstances and grew up on different sides of the city’s Olive Divide.”
Sneed also submitted testimony in Jefferson City against the proposed legislation to ban content taught in public schools.
Deeper Learning: Lived Experiences
The book study group continued the conversation as participants delved with provocative questions and their own assumptions regarding race, history and established narratives about American history that disregard uglier parts of the nation’s rise to a global power. Sandler said the District acted boldly to have these conversations despite statewide political pressure.
“The book study has given me a deep appreciation for U. City schools and its willingness to engage everyone in these conversations,” added parent Cassie Power. “I appreciate the willingness to step into this and how inviting the sessions are, and I appreciate how the group is trying to build community. People truly care about these issues, but there aren’t always spaces to think about them and talk with one another about what this means. The District is supporting students to navigate these hard histories and make meaning out of them and what to do in the future.”
During the sessions, participants were asked to think about and respond to queries such as “Who gets to write and critique history?” and “How might reframing history help us understand the country’s best qualities, developed over a centuries-long struggle for freedom, equality, and pluralism – a struggle whose DNA could also be traced to 1619?”
UCHS junior Michael Simmons said that discussion led him to a new understanding of principles for teaching Black history, as presented by Dr. LaGarrett King, founder and director of The Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University at Buffalo, New York.
“I especially appreciated his philosophy about teaching Black joy, because so often it seems like we only focus on the struggle,” Simmons said. “We only focus on the hard parts of history – the things that can be honestly traumatizing to students and young people, especially if we don’t talk about the joy and agency of Black people over the years.”
Sneed said the book study group addressed all three pillars of the District’s vision of Learning Reimagined. The event humanized, personalized and problematized the Black experience and offered differing perspectives on American history that challenged conventional thinking.
For Simmons, the experience also gave him hope.
“There were people from all over the country. There were a lot of older white adults and older adults. It really, really gave me hope and encouraged me. I saw that these conversations aren’t just being had among Black people. Other people are working to support us and the things that we are saying and wanting to do.”