In the months before journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism & Media was initially denied, major school donor Walter Hussman Jr. repeatedly voiced his concerns over Hannah-Jones’ hiring in emails with university leaders and Board of Trustee members. Hussman, whose $25 million donation to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019 literally got the School of Journalism & Media named after him and who is also the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, reportedly claimed in correspondence that Hannah-Jones’s journalistic work wasn’t objective. A white male journalist accusing a Black woman known for her reporting on the history of slavery in the United States of not being objective???? What utterly unoriginal racism.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is best known for creating the 1619 Project, a long-form journalistic re-exploration of the legacy of slavery in U.S. history that has been the source of much controversy ever since its release nearly two years ago in August 2019. Apparently, white people—especially historians, politicians, and bored suburban parents—are very upset when confronted with any version of history that does not center whiteness. In April, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract to serve as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, but after going through the extensive tenure application process, her application was rejected by the university’s Board of Trustees—making her the first person who has held the position not to be offered tenure.
Hussman portrays himself publicly as a journalist very concerned with objectivity and neutrality, but clearly falls into the category of white people who were pressed over the 1619 Project not being centered around white historical memory. In fact, he reportedly said exactly that in an email about Hannah-Jones sent last September that was obtained by North Carolina publication The Assembly. Hussman took particular offense to a line in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay in the 1619 Project which referenced the 1960s Civil Rights battle, stating “for the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.”
“I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War,” wrote Hussman. He continued, “long before Nikole Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”
What a nice reminder that historically the voyeuristic journalistic accounts of self-appointed white allies have always been valued over Black people’s own accounts of our own liberation struggles!! How will these white Southerners ever cope with not being centered in this one specific historical project? Maybe they can use their Pulitzers to dry their tears.
More recently, in an email to the dean of the journalism school sent in December, Hussman wrote:
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project.... I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.”
He added: “These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.”
Hmmm.... do you hear a dog whistle or is that just me??
During an interview with a local news outlet on Monday, Hussman claimed that he didn’t pressure UNC leaders on their decision to hire Hannah-Jones. “It’s not my decision, but I think I’d be kind of derelict in my duties if I thought they were making a mistake without at least telling them what I thought about it,” said Hussman to WRAL. It’s laughable to think that UNC wouldn’t take Hussman’s opinion into serious consideration when he’s made such sizable donations to the university that a whole part of the school is named after him.
After the wave of immediate backlash to their decision, the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has reportedly received a resubmitted tenure application for Hannah-Jones last week. It’s likely that the decision to allow for the tenure application to be resubmitted was influenced by Nikole Hannah-Jones’ announcement that she was considering taking legal action against the university. In a statement released on Friday, she wrote:
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech.”