05 Mar 2020

Nikole Hannah-Jones Brings the 1619 Project to HBS


Nikole Hannah-Jones
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

by Shona Simkin

What if the year 1619 was considered as important to American history as 1776?

In August of 1619, a ship docked in the British colony of Virginia. It was carrying 20-30 enslaved Africans who were sold to colonists. “If we were to imagine that our foundations were not freedoms, but slavery, how would that help us understand the country that would grow out of the first colonist landing in Jamestown in 1607, and how we understand the country that we live in now?” asked Nikole Hannah-Jones on February 18, at Harvard Business School’s Klarman Hall.

The Black History Month event, sponsored by HBS, Eastern Bank, the African-American Student Union, the HBS African-American Alumni Association, and the HBS Association of Boston, featured Hannah-Jones delivering the keynote address, followed by a panel discussion with HBS Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community Jan Hammond, President of the NAACP Boston Branch Tanisha Sullivan, President and CEO of the Partnership Pratt Wiley, President and COO of OneUnited Bank Teri Williams (MBA 1983), and Ronnie Wimberley (MBA 2021), moderated by journalist and WGBH Under the Radar host Callie Crossley.

(LtoR): Ronnie Wimberley, Teri Williams, Pratt Wiley, Tanisha Sullivan, Jam Hammond, and Callie Crossley.
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from the New York Times Magazine, created by Hannah-Jones, with the goal of reframing America’s history by placing the contributions of black Americans and the consequences of slavery at the center of that story. “When we understand that every American child learns about a ship that arrived in 1620 called the Mayflower, but that almost no American child learns about another ship that comes a year earlier called the White Lion, then we understand the power of erasure to shape Americans,” said Hannah-Jones. “We are taught to believe that the history we received was an objective history. But what we know is that history is never objective. There are facts, and then there are interpretations of facts. Then there are facts that you learn, and there are facts that you never hear at all.”

Following comments by Ivy Jack (MBA 2004), head of equity research at Northstar Asset Management and member of the board of governors of the HBS Association of Boston, and an introduction by Bob Rivers, chair and CEO of Eastern Bank, Hannah-Jones opened by describing the transatlantic slave trade as “unlike any other previous slave movement in the world.” Not only did the trade determine slave status on race, rather than a condition such as being a war captive or a criminal, she explained, but that determinant was then inherited by future generations for the next 250 years. Approximately 36,000 ships crossed the Atlantic, carrying in total nearly 13 million people, effectively “reshaping the entire demographic of the Americas,” said Hannah-Jones. The forcible removal of each country’s strongest and youngest people was devastating and debilitating, she said. “This was the largest forced migration in the history of the world.”

Hannah-Jones then took the audience through a synopsis of her 1619 Project essay, from Thomas Jefferson’s declaring that all men were created equal while owning 130 enslaved people, to the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision ruling that black people were a “separate class of persons” who “had no rights which a white person was bound to respect,” to Abraham Lincoln’s proposition that black Americans leave the country after emancipation.

Following emancipation, explained Hannah-Jones, black Americans began legislating for progressive rights for all. “Led by black activists and a Republican Party pushed left by the recalcitrance of white Southerners, the years directly after slavery saw the greatest expansion of human and civil rights this nation would ever see,” said Hannah-Jones; the 1865 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the 1866 Civil Rights Act, the 1868 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to any person born in the U.S., and the 1870 15th Amendment, ensuring the right to vote for all men, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Following the 100-year terror of Jim Crow segregation—which stripped virtually all of those gains—black Americans once again took up the mantle of attaining rights for all with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965’s Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. “There's something about being on the bottom that makes you want to care for all people in your communities," said Hannah-Jones.

Members of the African American Student Union meeting with Nikole Hannah-Jones before the event.
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Hannah-Jones then explored select 1619 Project essays, including: capitalism’s brutal roots in slavery, racist myths still perpetuated today by medical doctors, how policies enacted after the Civil War affect our current medical insurance system, the barbaric history of sugar, and how fear of and violence toward black people continue to define our criminal justice system.

Detailing recent voting trends across ethnic and gender lines, Hannah-Jones noted those for black men and women. “What the research shows is that black people as a whole are more likely to vote for community over individuals, and support the common good at the highest rates across all groups,” said Hannah-Jones. “The data is very clear—even more than black men, black women vote for community over the individual. They vote for what is best for all people, not just what is best for themselves. In a democracy we actually have to believe in a common good. We actually have to trust and help our fellow citizens.” Her concluding slide, displayed to a standing ovation, was: Trust Black Women.

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

The panelists, introduced by Eastern Bank Chief Marketing Officer Paul Alexander (MBA 1987), took the stage to discuss the connections between the 1619 Project and present-day Boston. Crossley’s first question referenced a quote from the PBS series Eyes on the Prize, “How do each of you working on equity, diversity, and inclusion, begin to ‘make America be America for all of its citizens’?” For Wimberley, it was reframing racism as a system of social organization rather than individual conversations and bad actors. Hammond detailed the development of a new teaching note on the history of African American inequality and its modern-day consequences, as a common knowledge base for all MBA students. Williams cited the founding of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts to help address the $8 median net worth for greater Boston nonimmigrant black households, in contrast to $247,500 for white residents. Wiley, who coordinated the voter expansion program for the Democratic National Party, spoke of attempting a national conversation about the intentional design of such systems as elections and the economy to perpetuate injustices. Sullivan discussed reparations, noting the stubborn discomfort even within the black community to embrace the concept, but stressing it as an affirmative, necessary step toward closing the persistent chasm of racial economic inequality.

Closing the event, Senior Associate Dean and MBA Faculty Chair Jan Rivkin thanked the panelists and Nikole Hannah-Jones as well as the event’s staff and student organizers: Director of Student Activities, MBA Student and Academic Services Mike Murphy; Assistant Director of Student Activities Cindy Spungin; Omosefe Aiyevbomwan (MBA 2020); Ashley Cohen (MBA 2021); and Ronnie Wimberley (MBA 2021). He then called on HBS students to take their learnings from the evening personally; to “act in ways that make the future different from the past.” He outlined two themes for future business leaders.

Jan Rivkin
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

One: “Business leaders have the power to do severe, lasting harm. We cannot forget the role of businesses in the injustices we've discussed tonight. We cannot forget that the slave trade was a trade. We cannot forget that the plantation system was a business system.” Two: “Business leaders have the opportunity to do great, lasting good. You will have the opportunity to hire people based on their true merits, to make sure that your products and services are available to the full palette of humanity on equal terms. You will likely have a disproportionate ability to influence policy in ways that lead to equity. I hope that all of you will seize those opportunities.”

Rivkin concluded with a quote from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of history is long. Tonight we saw that it is 400 years and counting. Reverend King went on to say that the arc of history bends towards justice. The most important thing I've learned tonight is that the arc does not bend under its own weight. It bends if, and only if, each of us pulls it in the right direction. I hope that all of us will resolve tonight to pull the arc in the right direction with all of our strength.”

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