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The 1619 Project: A Poem Reveals Hidden History

The first Africans brought as slaves to British North America arrived 400 years ago. The New York Times is marking that terrible moment in history with The 1619 Project, a collection of essays and other work examining the ways in which slavery’s brutality, racism, and economic exploitation continue to haunt and even define the U.S. today.

The project includes 16 “original literary works” commissioned by the Times to “bring consequential moments in African-American history to life.” Those pieces include a poem called “July 27, 1816,” written by Tyehimba Jess, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet on the faculty of the College of Staten Island.

Trees are shown in a black and white view of earthworks at Fort Gadsden, a historic site in Franklin County, Florida
View of earthworks at Fort Gadsden, Franklin County, Florida. Photo: State Archives of Florida, FloridaMemory.com

Jess’ poem commemorates an attack by U.S. troops on a Florida fort occupied by both Native Americans and African Americans who’d fled slavery. The fort was built by the British to organize support against U.S. forces during the War of 1812. When the British evacuated in 1815, they left behind a sprawling community that included hundreds of armed black and Native soldiers. “They were bonded, side by side, Black and Red, in a blood red hue,” wrote Jess.

Slave owners in nearby Georgia and elsewhere wanted the settlement destroyed. In 1816, Andrew Jackson, the Army general and future president, ordered an attack. A shot fired by U.S. troops landed on an ammunition stockpile in the fort, blowing the structure up and killing nearly all 300 people inside. Raids by U.S. forces continued for two years until the rest of the settlement was destroyed.

Jess uses part of the poem to explicate the term “maroon,” noting that “Spaniards called them cimarrones, runaways — escapees from Carolina plantation death-prisons. English simply called them maroons, flattening the Spanish to make them seem alone, abandoned, adrift.”

He went on: “Sovereignty soldiers, Black refugees, self-abolitionists, fighting through America’s history, marooned in a land they made their own, acre after acre, plot after plot, war after war, life after life. They fought only for America to let them be marooned — left alone — in their own unchained, singing, worthy blood.”

Today the site is known as the Fort Gadsden State Historic Site. It’s part of the U.S. Forest Service system and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other CUNY contributors to The 1619 Project included David Waldstreicher, a historian at The Graduate Center who specializes in early and 19th century America and who served as an adviser on the project; and Linda Villarosa, who heads the journalism department at City College and wrote an essay for the Times on myths about physical racial differences used to justify slavery and torture.