When COVID-19 hit Ohio in March 2020, Heights Libraries shut down and canceled most of its programs. With the help of the now ubiquitous video platform Zoom, the library was able to hold some programs online: storytimes, book discussions, and knitting groups all made the switch. None were more successful than the 1619 Project discussion series.
Over the course of 2020, a total of 337 people attended ten 1619 Project-inspired discussions via Zoom, and so far in 2021, 155 have attended eight online programs.
“The 1619 Project” itself, the original New York Times publication, is almost two years old. Librarian John Piche, who runs the Heights Libraries’ 1619 Project discussion series, has used it as a foundation to continue holding popular programs that address the issue of racial equity. Piche and other staff now do their own research and create reading packets that serve as discussion starters and reference texts for the ongoing program series.
“I started putting together ‘topic’ packets that draw upon the themes and issues addressed in the original 1619 Project,” said Piche. “For instance, when we discussed Black culture, the reading packet featured Wesley Morris’ original 1619 Project article, and I added three articles about TikTok, the 1970s’ music industry, and the history of blackface minstrelsy.”
Other topics have explored the impact of race on elections, how the topic of slavery is taught, slavery and the Constitution, slavery and the Founders, redlining’s impact on housing, and race and health care.
Piche has also created original 1619-related content for the library’s YouTube channel, in the form of original interviews with historians, lawyers, scholars, and activists.
There are currently 22 interviews on the channel, including talks with Cullen Sweeney, Cuyahoga County’s chief public defender; Eric Herschthal, University of Utah assistant professor of history; Sherri Burr, Dickason Chair and Regents Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico; Atiba Ellis, Marquette University Law School professor; and Manisha Sinha, the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American history at the University of Connecticut.
The series has not been without controversy. Heights Libraries has received formal complaints from community members that the program is biased, and that “The 1619 Project” itself is a flawed piece of research.
Piche has addressed the controversy in several ways, including devoting a session to the topic “The 1619 Project vs. the 1776 Project,” and by providing online resources about it, including an extensive list of articles and an interview with Reginald L. Bell, Ph.D., a scholar who is skeptical of the project, and opposed to reparations.
“John Piche, who interviewed me for the 1619 Project, surprised me when he e-mailed me, given my argument is against the proposition of reparations,” said Bell, professor of management at the College of Business at Prairie View A&M University. “He assured me that he would be balanced in his solicitation of various worldviews, and he did not let me down. The whole series of John’s video-recorded interviews include[s] professors from a broad range of top-tier academic institutions.”
Todd M. Michney, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech University, and author of Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900–1980, is another scholar whose interview appears on the project’s library Web page.
“It was my great pleasure as a professional historian to record an interview with Mr. Piche about redlining, in which I tried to relate the topic to Cleveland’s experience specifically,” said Michney, who grew up in Cleveland. “I hope that the interviews like this, which Mr. Piche has facilitated, have helped to drive the discussion in productive directions, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to contribute.”
In November, the 1619 Project discussion series will turn its focus to 400 Souls: A Community History of African Americans 1619–2019, an anthology edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Bain, and featuring the work of poets, historians, novelists, and activists.
For more information about the project, and to see the related interviews, visit https://heightslibrary.org/services/1619-project.