A conservative-leaning group of educators has sent an open letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board urging them to revoke a prize for commentary awarded to a New York Times magazine reporter for an essay that initially claimed one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery.
The letter, penned by the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and transmitted to the prize board this week, said reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’ claim that “protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution” was a “claim for which there is simply no evidence.”
“When the Board announced the prize on May 4, 2020, it praised Hanna-Jones for ‘a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution,'” the letter said, quoting comments from the Pulitzer Prize Board when it issued the award to the reporter.
Two months before the prize was awarded, a New York Times fact-checker amended a passage that placed heavy emphasis on the preservation of slavery as a main trigger for the American Revolution. The revised writing now says that it was a motivator for some of the individuals who participated in the revolt.
“The scrutiny has left the essay discredited, so much so that the Times has felt the need to go back and change a crucial passage in it, softening but not eliminating its unsupported assertion about slavery and the Revolution,” the committee’s letter said.
It is not the first time Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project have come under fire — writers for the Times’ chief print rival the Wall Street Journal and other publications have pointed to questionable claims, blanket misrepresentations and erroneous statements of fact throughout the project.
Some historians who are unconnected to the news media have also raised concerns about the accuracy of the project and the reporter’s work.
“Hannah-Jones did not refute these criticisms or answer them in a respectful or meaningful way,” the letter said. “Instead, she dismissed them.”
The Times, however, did not dismiss the concerns. In March, an editor confirmed that a passage had been modified in Hannah-Jones’ original essay but said the overall tone of the writing and the project as a whole were still structurally sound. The editor also disputed numerous critics who said information about slavery and its connection to the American Revolution were not rooted in factual evidence.
“We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery,” Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times magazine, wrote. “Versions of this interpretation can be found in much of the scholarship into the origins and character of the Revolution that has marked the past 40 years or so of early American historiography, in part because historians of the past few decades have increasingly scrutinized the role of slavery and the agency of enslaved people in driving events of the Revolutionary period.”