Strong Words on Slavery: Concerns Raised After Email Blast by CT Professor

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Teaching a new perspective on slavery and the contributions of Black Americans has sparked a backlash in Connecticut.

A state university professor is denouncing an award-winning initiative named The 1619 Project, calling the project and its creator misleading, bigoted, and more. But the professor’s critique, and how he distributed it, has raised questions.

As soon as it showed up in Putnam Superintendent Daniel Sullivan’s inbox, a strongly worded email about what the district teaches got his attention.

“I realized that the concerns are actually much more deeply personal than they are curriculum based,” Sullivan said.

The email, sent to every public-school superintendent in Connecticut, came from Central Connecticut State University European History Professor Jay Bergman. In it, he cautions districts against using any part of something called The 1619 Project in their instruction, calling it “…entirely false, mostly false, or misleading.”

Produced by the New York Times, The 1619 Project advocates taking a fresh look at how U.S. history is taught in terms of the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.

Southern Connecticut State University Professor Frank Harris III has designed a whole webpage recognizing the significance of 1619, the year many believe the first enslaved Africans were brought to our shores. His webpage refers to The 1619 Project often.

“It has not been covered to the point where people know about what happened, why it happened, and what results are still reverberating today,” Harris explained.

The 1619 Project calls many of the founding fathers hypocritical for demanding freedom from Britain while they themselves owned slaves, and noting Abe Lincoln, known as the president who freed the slaves, at one point pushed for their emancipation and relocation outside the U.S.

Citing critiques from both the right and left, Bergman said in his email that 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones is an “…anti-white bigot…”, who “…presents America’s history as driven, nearly exclusively, by white racism…and, “…the ultimate objective of the project is reparations for Blacks.”

Sullivan said, “We have to be willing to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past.”

In a back and forth between Bergman, Sullivan and the state university system that NBC Connecticut Investigates obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Sullivan and his U.S. history team took issue with “…Professor Bergman’s utter disregard for the centuries long struggles of minority communities.”

Putnam schools also found it “…extremely inappropriate…” Bergman attempted to dictate what they teach using the taxpayer funded CCSU email system.

“I think that creates a problem for the state university system to consider how they feel is appropriate to address…the fact that you're contacting a school district as a professor of history at the state university…I think when you do that you're doing it in a capacity as though you're a person of authority as opposed to this is my personal opinion,” Sullivan said.

State university system leaders said they “…strongly disagree…” with many of Bergman’s “…highly objectionable…” statements. At the same time, they did not indicate they were contemplating any discipline for Bergman.

Bergman, who along with the state university system declined our requests for an on-camera interview, told us he was acting in his capacity as an historian, meeting an obligation as a faculty member to promote community engagement.

1619 project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones also declined to comment.

The New York Times released a statement that does not address Bergman specifically, but says in part, “The 1619 Project is available as a course supplement that was taught last year in schools in all 50 states. We believe it is important for American students to understand the truth about their country’s history.”

Educator Interest in The 1619 Project Materials

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a partner of the 1619 Project, is tracking interest in the curriculum through anonymous surveys educators can fill out on their site. Click the photo for more from The Pulitzer Center.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Email from Bergman to Superintendents

Letter From Putnam Educators to CCSU

CSCU Response to Sullivan About Bergman

Statement from CCSU President Zulma R. Toro on Bergman Email

"I wish to be clear that Professor Bergman does not speak for the University on this matter, and I am in full support of the sentiments conveyed in the letter to the Putnam Superintendent of Schools by Jane Gates, interim President of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President."

Full Statement from The New York Times on The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is based in part on decades of recent scholarship by leading historians of early America that has profoundly expanded our sense of the colonial and Revolutionary period. Much of this scholarship has focused on the central role that slavery played in the nation’s founding. On this subject alone, there have been dozens of important new works published in the past twenty or thirty years. This scholarship has helped challenge prevailing narratives about our founding that prioritized the ideals of the Revolution while paying scant attention to historical realities. It is in part due to these prevailing narratives that 60% of teachers polled in a 2017 said that they believed their textbook’s coverage of slavery was inadequate. We’re proud that, in partnership with The Pulitzer Center, we’ve been able to help address that problem by making The 1619 Project available as a course supplement that was taught last year in schools in all 50 states. We believe it is important for American students to understand the truth about their country’s history. To paraphrase the historian Alfred F. Young, we should not be so protective of the achievements of equality that we are unwilling to come to grips with inequality.

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