Acknowledging 1619

Danny Stock
Last week, High School students and staff had their first opportunity to engage with The New York Times (NYT) 1619 initiative as curated for GDS by High School English teacher Aisha Sidibe and High School History teachers Ricardo Carmona and Topher Dunne, in partnership with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)'s director Marlo Thomas, program associate Guyton Mathews, and program assistant Campbell Keyser.

According to The New York Times online site, the 1619 project launched in “observance of the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It 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.”

The GDS project on the 1619 initiative is a launching point for a fully immersive dive into this topic; the HS will invite researchers, authors, and experts to engage with the HS community around these topics throughout the year. While it is known that there were Native Americans and enslaved people prior to 1619 on what we now call the American continent, the discovery of records naming the ship that forcibly brought the first Africans to a location in Virginia (ironically named Point Comfort) has created a concrete and pivotal reference point for the brutal beginning of chattel slavery* in America. The acknowledgement of 400 years of systemic oppression and multigenerational trauma from state-sanctioned slavery is in fact the acknowledgement that Black History is American History. The dozens of articles and podcasts of the 1619 project have “lifted up the importance of accurately teaching the history of enslaved people through a research-based project,” Marlo said.

At the High School, students and staff thoughtfully engaged with the articles and images arranged in a timeline spanning the library wall. In order to span the 400 years, the timeline jumped some great spans of time: content from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was followed by the founding of the first integrated school in Washington, DC (Georgetown Day School, 1945). Students engaged in animated conversations in the “Conversation Station,” pulling written prompts from a bowl. On the other side of the room, students reflected in writing on what 1619 means to them. They posted sticky notes on a shared bulletin board. Organizers screened a video about the transatlantic slave trade and its enduring impact far beyond its abolition. At lunchtime, gallery attendees heard from guest speaker Richard Bell, author of Stolen, a book about five free boys kidnapped into slavery. The next guest speaker, Elsa Mendoza, who studies the intersection of slavery, Jesuits, and DC at Georgetown University will join the community on December 13. The GDS curating committee will continue to bring guest speakers throughout the year.

As our High School community hosted the 1619 gallery and speaker Richard Bell, 36 members of the GDS faculty/staff and six students attended the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) 32nd People of Color Conference (PoCC) with the theme “1619. 2019. Before. Beyond. Amplifying Our Intelligence to Liberate, Co-create, and Thrive.” PoCC is the “flagship of NAIS’s commitment to equity and justice in teaching, learning, and organizational development.” The conference is intentionally designed to create a space where educators of color can find support, professional development, inspiration, and networking in specific ways that acknowledge the “complex dynamics of independent school life and culture and the varied roles people of color play and experience in these settings.”

Marlo explained that PoCC created the space that allowed attendees to acknowledge that although we are 400 years removed from a ship that arrived in Virginia transporting enslaved human beings against their will, we continue to feel the impact of America's origins. Speaker Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the seminal book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury & Healing, shared her research and insights on the enduring effects of slavery and other ills. Both GDS's 1619 project and PoCC call our community to attend to this lasting legacy of pain and oppression. They encourage us to seek ways to work through the trauma for equity and justice in our county, city, and our own school community.

*The economic system under which human lives are bought, sold, owned, and bred as property.
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