University of Louisville criticizes alum Mitch McConnell for 1619 slavery comments

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The University of Louisville's leadership publicly criticized alumnus Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying he doesn't see 1619 — often seen as the start of American slavery — as one of U.S. history's most important points.

U of L's interim senior associate vice president for diversity and equity, Dr. V. Faye Jones, sent out a campuswide email Thursday in which she said McConnell's comments "are quite troubling for American descendants of slaves, our allies and those who support us."

"To imply that slavery is not an important part of United States history not only fails to provide a true representation of the facts, but also denies the heritage, culture, resilience and survival of Black people in America," Jones said in the email.

"It also fails to give context to the history of systemic racial discrimination, the United States’ 'original sin' as Sen. McConnell called it, which still plagues us today," she continued.

She was referring to statements McConnell made Monday during a visit to U of L's ShelbyHurst campus, where he appeared alongside U of L President Neeli Bendapudi.

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McConnell quickly drew criticism for his response that day when a reporter asked about a letter he and other Senate Republicans sent to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that criticized a proposed plan to prioritize educational efforts that focus on systemic racism in U.S. history.

“I think this is about American history and the most important dates in American history. And my view — and I think most Americans think — dates like 1776, the Declaration of Independence; 1787, the Constitution; 1861-1865, the Civil War, are sort of the basic tenets of American history," McConnell said Monday.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at a press conference after touring the Regional Biocontainment Lab - Center for Predictive Medicine at the University of Louisville on Monday, May 3, 2021.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at a press conference after touring the Regional Biocontainment Lab - Center for Predictive Medicine at the University of Louisville on Monday, May 3, 2021.

“There are a lot of exotic notions about what are the most important points in American history. I simply disagree with the notion that The New York Times laid out there that the year 1619 was one of those years," he continued.

He was referring to The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that emphasized the importance of the year American slavery essentially began as well as slavery’s long-term consequences for the country. It also examined and reframed U.S. history through that lens.

“I think that issue that we all are concerned about — racial discrimination — it was our original sin. We’ve been working for 200-and-some-odd years to get past it,” McConnell also said Monday. “We’re still working on it, and I just simply don’t think that’s part of the core underpinning of what American civic education ought to be about."

Jones' letter Thursday to the U of L community made it clear the university's leadership — including Bendapudi — deeply disagrees with McConnell's statements.

"What we know to be true is that slavery and the date the first enslaved Africans arrived and were sold on U.S. soil are more than an 'exotic notion,' " she wrote. "If the Civil War is a significant part of history, should not the basis for it also be viewed as significant?"

U of L leadership's rebuke of McConnell is notable, in no small part because Kentucky's powerful senator has a long history with the institution.

He graduated from the university in 1964, and in 1991, he founded the McConnell Center, which has provided scholarships to U of L students for many years.

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Jones indicated U of L leaders' rejection of McConnell's statements were necessary to uphold the university's publicly stated vision for its future.

She wrote: "Our vision statement affirms that we 'commit ourselves to building an exemplary educational community that offers a nurturing and challenging intellectual climate, a respect for the spectrum of human diversity, and a genuine understanding of the many differences — including race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, religion, diversity of thought and political ideology — that enrich a vibrant metropolitan research university.'

"To be true to that vision, President Bendapudi, Provost (Lori Stewart) Gonzalez and I reject the idea that the year 1619 is not a critical moment in the history of this country."

In response to a request for comment about U of L leadership's criticisms, a spokesman for McConnell simply referred The Courier Journal to the letter the senator and other Republicans sent the U.S. education secretary.

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: University of Louisville criticizes Mitch McConnell for 1619 comments