As our country is going through a national reckoning on race, there is a newfound appetite to improve the teaching of Black and all of American history, and to underscore and celebrate the stories that showcase Black excellence and resiliency, even in the face of unimaginable adversity.
To fully understand why we created the organization 1776 Unites, consider the tale of Damon, a fictitious 14-year-old ninth grade student living in the Harrison neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side.
In 2020, the city of Chicago recorded 774 murders, the highest number of murders in any American municipality, and an increase of more than 50% from the year prior. The number of overall shooting incidents rose from 2,120 in 2019 to 3,237 as of Dec. 27, 2020 — an increase of 52%. Sadly for its residents, the greatest concentration of murders was in the Harrison, Ogden and Austin neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side.
Despite these grisly statistics, Damon and his parents dream of leading a better life for him and eventually his children and even his children’s children. One of Damon’s refuges to foster this dream is within his school, with teachers who have high expectations of him to succeed, regardless of his skin color, gender, zip code or other circumstances. Damon would hope to learn unvarnished stories, past and present, of young people from similar or even more challenging circumstances who struggled and yet managed to thrive, even in the face of daunting adversity.
But rather than be provided those types of hopeful messages, imagine that Damon is taught that America is rigged against him because “anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Contrary to the promise embedded within America’s bedrock principles of equality of opportunity and individual dignity, the school’s curriculum posits that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”
Unfortunately, the curriculum in Damon’s story is not hypothetical. In September 2019, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools announced that “every CPS high school will receive 200-400 copies of the New York Times’ The 1619 Project this week as a resource to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today.” This was done despite a bevy of the country’s most respected historians raising questions about the central claim posited by the 1619 Project that “one of the primary reasons” the Revolutionary War was fought for independence from Britain was because American colonists “wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” or that America was founded as a “slavocracy,” and not a democracy.
How would children be impacted by being subjected to a distorted and incomplete accounting of American history that cherry-picks the most egregious parts of our country’s past to weave a narrative that America is hostile to their dreams? That is the animating question behind the movement 1776 Unites. The nonprofit is the creation of Robert Woodson, founder and president of the Woodson Center.
Woodson has spent 40 years listening to people experiencing problems associated with poverty in neighborhoods across the country and finding and amplifying effective solutions to end gang violence, drug addiction, hunger, human trafficking, broken families and broken spirits.
He built a reputation for his insights on upward mobility and related issues based on the wisdom and insight of ordinary people, who are often better suited to find and implement effective solutions for themselves and their communities. These solutions, resourced and scaled by the Woodson Center for the past four decades, presuppose the agency of those suffering, rather than deferring to outside “experts” parachuting in with top-down interventions.
And they certainly reject the idea that “systemic racism” is so pervasive that Black Americans have no agency or power to control their own lives. After the 1619 Project debuted in August 2019 as one of the more egregious examples of grievance, Woodson mobilized his network to address the work and offer an alternative message. The messengers were an assembly of voices, led by Black Americans, that rejected a victim narrative and expressed trust in America’s promise.
As Bob Woodson says, “The idea was to form a Black-led coalition from across the political spectrum who would offer their own take on the 1619 Project in opposition to the notion of grievance. We wanted to let Americans know that the voices so prevalent in mainstream media, such as The New York Times, do not speak for all Black people in America. Rather, a complete accounting of the Black experience in America centers around agency, instead of the victimhood story so commonly pushed today.”
The scholars began writing essays reflecting their perspectives on race, agency and the challenges facing our country as a result of the grip of grievance in today’s culture and institutions.
Then, on Feb. 15, 2020 — Frederick Douglass’ birthday — 1776 Unites launched with a press conference at the National Press Club and immediately received national attention.
In addition to the essays, 1776 Unites knew it had to also be a voice in K-12 schools — the next landing pad for academic grievance studies. We chose to introduce a curriculum that tells a complete story of Black history, namely figures whom few know about — but more should — who exemplify resilience, achievement, self-determination and agency, and who overcame in the worst chapters of history when racism truly was institutionalized through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The curriculum highlights stories from the experiences of Biddy Mason, Elijah McCoy, the Rosenwald Schools and others. The online lessons are free to get them in as many classrooms as possible.
1776 Unites was started to give Black kids a true and full accounting of the inspiring examples throughout history, particularly by Blacks who overcame the odds during our country’s shameful chapters of racism. The grievance-obsessed voices some hear in media and in schools today do not speak for multitudes of Black Americans, and 1776 Unites exists to give a platform to those who reject victimhood and instead seek to focus on solutions to our most pressing societal problems.
According to Woodson, “Our country is in a moral and spiritual free fall but the answers lie within examples from past and present of people who have overcome incredible odds to achieve. It’s a David and Goliath battle getting our message out there, but we always remember that David won.”
Ian Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior visiting fellow at the Woodson Center and a writer for the 1776 Unites Campaign. Readers can learn more by visiting 1776Unites.com or by reading the organization’s latest book, “Red White and Black: Rescuing History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”