When Nikole Hannah-Jones, “reframer” of American history via “The 1619 Project,” ascends the stage in the regalia that traditionally denotes scholarly accomplishment to give the commencement address at Spelman College on May 21, she should thank a white man for leading the way.
That white man, though, is not the capitalist who donated millions of dollars to the college, whose founding goes back to 1881 when eleven formerly enslaved women met in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church to learn to read the Bible. That white man was John D. Rockefeller. Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, as it was first called, became Spelman Seminary in 1924 “in honor of Mrs. Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents Harvey Buel and Lucy Henry Spelman, longtime activists in the antislavery movement.” Spelman College, however, retained Christian principles. The 1958-1959 college catalogue proclaimed, “Spelman College is emphatically Christian,” governed by the “ideal” of “the life and teachings of Jesus.”
But in Hannah-Jones’s “Project,” America is founded as a “slaveocracy” with the arrival of Africans on the shores of Virginia in 1619. The white founders and their descendants are nothing more than enslavers. In her black nationalist-Marxist retelling, the ultra-workers, i.e., slaves, are the real founders. America did not experience democracy until the slaves’ descendants took to the streets in the 1960s. More of such “democracy” came in the summer of 2020 in rioting and statue toppling.
The white man who prepared the way for Hannah-Jones was one-time member of the Communist Party USA, Howard Zinn, who taught at Spelman in the years the college was advertising itself as “emphatically Christian.”
Zinn, a World War II veteran set to receive his Ph.D. from Columbia University, was hired in 1956 by the college’s first black and first male president, Albert Manley.
Of course, Zinn hid his Party membership (from at least 1949 to mid-1953). In 1956, after Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin, many Party members “found a new outlet for their activism in the Civil Rights Movement,” according to historian Maurice Isserman. For example, Tom Kahn, a white socialist, enrolled at Howard University in 1960 to radicalize black students who would then play leading roles in the movement Zinn mentored, the misnamed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Professor Zinn similarly radicalized his students.
Zinn’s stint lasted seven years, until Manley booted him. Forty-two years later, in 2005, Zinn was invited to give the commencement address by Spelman president Beverly Tatum, a scholar specializing in racism who often assigned Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to her students. In 2011, a year after Zinn’s death at age 87, at the dedication of the Howard Zinn room at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., Tatum described learning about Manley’s firing of Zinn, “a tenured history professor, as legend has it, for insubordination.”
Whether Zinn had tenure is a matter of dispute. Zinn never published anything that could be called scholarly after publishing his respectable dissertation-turned-book on the Congressional career of Fiorella LaGuardia.
The letters from Tamiment Library, linked on the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit which promotes Zinn and lessons based on his books, while smearing his critics, give a sanitized account. (ZEP also promotes The 1619 Project.)
Manley’s letter of June 1, 1963, (with a check for a year’s salary) informed Zinn that as of June 30, he would be relieved of “all duties of the College.”
In his letter, Zinn insisted that he had tenure. According to the explanatory notes, Zinn was a credentialed professor who had “mold[ed] some of the brightest minds in the country,” namely those of Alice Walker and Marian Wright-Edelman. He was also “deeply engaged in the Civil Rights movement as political activist,” for which he was fired. “As an active member of . . . SNCC he advocated for freedom by participating in sit-ins and other political rallies, often with students from Spelman.”
Manley, who was born of parents of Jamaican descent in Honduras, however, supported civil rights. He had been appalled by the segregation he saw when he came to the United States as a student. But he saw through Zinn’s ruse. The “civil rights” protests Zinn led his students on did little more than result in their incarceration (while Zinn in typical fashion slipped away), drained the coffers of the NAACP for bail and legal fees, and resulted in very few voter registrations.
ZEP presents its namesake as a hero and his black boss as a villain. But Zinn disparaged his employer. In the August 6, 1960, Nation magazine, he referred to Spelman as a “finishing school” that only taught elite black women to “[walk] gracefully, [talk] properly,” and “[pour] tea elegantly.” At the same time, Zinn was encouraging students to defy campus rules about church attendance, dress code, and curfews. Zinn brought a recording of students expressing their grievances about campus rules to a faculty meeting. Manley refused to listen.
The Tamiment Library did not publish other related correspondence, including Zinn’s thirty-five-page memo to the Board of Trustees, in which Zinn compared Manley to a “colonial administrator,” denounced “the air of piety, the ceremonial occasions, the compulsory chapel attendance,” and cast the Christian worship service as “pompous and empty ritual.” Zinn also enlisted the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who cited Spelman for violating his academic freedom.
Manley then explained that Zinn’s contract was not renewed because he had not written any “outstanding book in history” or “articles of great significance in the history journals.” Indeed, Zinn published in Harper’s Monthly, the Progressive, New South Students, Liberation, Ramparts, and Z Magazine, and his books were polemical accounts of his own activism.
Manley also brought up an outstanding “morals charge” from 1960, warning Zinn with “documented facts concerning your personal and private relationships with a student, which are extremely relevant to your fitness to serve as a faculty member in this or any other institution.”
The student, a minor, had been discovered by police with Zinn in his parked car, late at night. Zinn threatened to sue for libel, rejected the AAUP’s suggestion of bargaining for an additional year’s salary and the opportunity to resign, and wrote Manley, charging him with Puritanical “moralizing” and allowing his sexual imagination to “[work] overtime in order to manufacture some tidbit of gossip about me.”
Manley then threatened to publish an “official” police report, corroborating statements, and statements from neighbors. But by 1965, Zinn had been offered an associate professorship at Boston University and the matter was dropped.
That student in 2016 adamantly denied having an affair with Zinn.
But Alice Walker did not dismiss rumors about the married Zinn’s affair with another student, stating, “We were all in love with Howie.” Zinn was a womanizer, according to even his sympathetic biographers.
At Boston University, Zinn took up the cause-du-jour, the Vietnam War, provoking student protests and draft-card burnings—and disappearing when police arrived. He defied departmental rules and used the classroom as his teach-in.
Zinn’s biography is included in my book, Debunking Howard Zinn, to explain his motivations and expose falsifications in his commercial blockbuster A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980 and frequently used in classrooms. Zinn quotes selectively, leaves out critical information, uses innuendo instead of evidence, and plagiarizes. He makes it appear that Columbus was set on pillaging and enslaving rather than saving souls and that Douglas Pike described the Viet Cong as teaching democratic organizing to villagers instead of what Pike said they did: commit genocide.
Zinn twisted history to fit the Communist outline in a manner similar to Communist Party leader William Z. Foster’s 1951 Outline Political History of the Americas.
Likewise, Nikole Hannah-Jones recycled a book she had read in high school, Before the Mayflower, written in 1961 by Ebony magazine writer Lerone Bennett, known for coining the term “Black Power.” She, however, took Bennett’s distortions of history to a higher level. She rivals Zinn in the number of falsifications (which I also debunk). She has also let slip that her many distortions were made not always out of ignorance, but knowingly. In a comment on Twitter, she revealed her awareness that slavery had existed prior to and outside of the American colonies. She also revealed in a Los Angeles Times interview her knowledge about the ownership of black slaves by free blacks.
Like Howard Zinn, Hannah-Jones distorts history in pursuit of the agenda of redistribution of wealth—as “reparations”—hence the omission of inconvenient facts. Like Zinn, she glorifies violent protest.
Hannah-Jones, by replacing 1776 with 1619, seeks to destroy the conception of the United States as we know it. Decades previously, Zinn sought to wipe out the idea of a nation founded in 1776 and replace it with an amorphous founding on the backs of the oppressed: workers, slaves, and servants—on land stolen from Indians. For Zinn the United States had no right to exist. He wrote in his magnum opus that to claim that there even is “such a thing as ‘the United States’” was a “pretense.”
Zinn in his 2005 commencement speech referred to a photo on the front page of the New York Times, which “showed ordinary Americans sitting on chairs on the southern border of Arizona, facing Mexico. They were holding guns and they were looking for Mexicans who might be trying to cross the border into the United States.”
It was “horrifying” to Zinn that, “in this twenty-first century of what we call ‘civilization,’ we have carved up what we claim is one world into two hundred artificially created entities we call ‘nations’ and are ready to kill anyone who crosses a boundary.” Of course: There will be no borders in the global communist order.
Recalling the strategy he used in A People’s History, Zinn asked a leading question: “Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary, so fierce it leads to murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?”—and answered: “These ways of thinking, cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on, have been useful to those in power. . . .”
Sadly, eighteen years later the Spelman College Class of 2023 will be getting more of the same. Their newly freed foremothers, seeking to read God’s word, would have been saddened by what their Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary has become.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., a resident fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, is author of Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America and Debunking The 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America.