Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has tried to prove his racial sensitivity by hosting criminal justice reform panels and by sponsoring a bill to promote The New York Times‘ “1619 Project,” which claims that America’s true founding came with the arrival of the first black slaves, not with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Yet according to Peters’ own late father, the senator’s great-great-grandfather harbored John Wilkes Booth after the notorious killer assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. In November, Peters will face a challenge from black Republican John James.
Peters’ father, English teacher and news reporter Herb Peters, said Booth found safe haven in the home of Richard Garrett, The New York Post reported.
Five riders in Confederate uniforms approached Garrett’s farmhouse near Port Royal, Va., on April 24, 1865, nine days after Lincoln’s death, Herb Peters explained. Since news traveled slowly in those days, Garrett had not heard about the assassination. One of the horsemen asked Garrett to harbor Booth, who was traveling under the name James W. Boyd.
“None of the Garretts knew that Booth and co-conspirator David Herold escaped from Washington by horseback into Maryland and were the objects of a massive federal manhunt,” the senator’s late father told the Rochester-Avon Historical Society in Rochester, Mich., in 2011.
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Booth lived “completely at ease” with the family for two days, sharing meals and playing with Garrett’s children. The feds found him there, and Booth died in a shootout in the Garretts’ tobacco farm, which was also torched on April 26.
Garrett, a Confederate with 22 slaves, demanded compensation for the burned barn, but lawmakers condemned his conduct harboring Booth as “undoubtedly disloyal.”
“These events have been written about for generations, and it’s important we know our history so that we can work toward an equal and inclusive society. Those are my values,” Sen. Peters told The Post. He also noted that his family has a long history of military service, with ancestors fighting for the Union in the Civil War and on the Patriot side of the American Revolution. Peters himself served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve before entering politics.
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History is complicated, and Peters cannot help his connection with John Wilkes Booth. Yet his support for the “1619 Project” arguably makes his family history — good and bad — more important.
Peters has hosted online forums on racial justice and criminal justice reform and introduced the “1619 Act to Raise Awareness, Understanding of African American History in Schools.” The name refers to the Times‘ “1619 Project,” which falsely claimed that the American Revolution was fought in part to defend slavery.
The act specifically aims to expand access to programming from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in public schools. Peters filed the act after the NMAAHC released a horrifying Marxist lesson on whiteness that “deconstructed” various aspects of American and Western culture, including capitalism, science, the nuclear family, and Christianity, as nefarious relics of white supremacy. The lesson also claims that a work ethic, delayed gratification, being polite, and getting to meetings on time are aspects of the “whiteness” culture that must be deconstructed and rejected.
Peters’ support for the “1619 Project” and the NMAAHC programming came after protests over the horrific police killing of George Floyd devolved into violent riots, looting, and vandalism. Rioters seem to act on the false premise that America is defined by “systemic racism,” a mindset that arguably traces back to the “1619 Project.”
When vandals toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland, they spray-painted “1619” on the statue. When Claremont’s Charles Kesler wrote in The New York Post, “Call them the 1619 riots,” the project’s founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots and the defamation of American Founding Fathers like George Washington.
In a November 9, 1995 op-ed, the 1619 Project founder condemned Christopher Columbus as “no different” from Adolf Hitler and demonized the “white race” as the true “savages” and “bloodsuckers.” She went on to describe “white America’s dream” as “colored America’s nightmare.” Just this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed a similar sentiment when she called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.
Yet the “1619 riots” have destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 21 Americans have died in the riots, most of them black. Retired police chief David Dorn was killed by looters breaking into his pawnshop in St. Louis. Chris Beaty was shot while helping two women who were being mugged in Indianapolis. Antonio Mays Jr., a 16-year-old boy, was shot and killed outside the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) in Seattle. Secoriea Taylor — the 8-year-old girl Vernon Jones mentioned — was fatally shot as her mother attempted to park a car near a group of protesters close to the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks had been killed by police.
While Peters likely has the best of intentions in supporting the “1619 Project” and the NMAAHC lessons, these division and dangerous projects arguably do more harm than good to the black community and to America as a whole.
John James, Peters’ opponent in the November election, slammed the Democrat’s racial justice online forum as “PR.”
“Gary Peters doesn’t speak for black people. We speak for ourselves,” James declared. “I believe that representation matters. believe that if we’ve been successful the first time, not only will we have an African-American kind of black male from Detroit, representing us in this reform debate.”
The fact that Peters’ ancestor allegedly harbored John Wilkes Booth does not necessarily mean anything about the senator today. Rational Americans should recognize that Peters is not responsible for the actions of his great-great-grandfather. But the entire premise of the argument that “structural racism” defines the true nature of America, a racial and historical stain that cannot be excised, makes Peters’ ancestor relevant. Garrett likely did not know he was harboring a traitor and an assassin, and Peters is not responsible for his actions in any case.
But the dangerous and destructive project Peters is supporting in the name of helping black people distorts history in a way that would justify demonizing Peters for the unfortunate actions of his remote ancestor.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.