Two of the country’s most prominent black intellectuals joined forces on the stage of Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs Thursday afternoon, where an eager crowd of listeners filled the pews from front to balcony for a nearly two-hour appearance by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Michael Eric Dyson.

Ms. Hannah-Jones: “We were actually founded not as a democracy but as a slaveholding republic.” — Jeanna Shepard

The historic wooden octagon frequently resounded with cheers and applause as Ms. Hannah-Jones and Mr. Dyson answered questions from moderator Karen Holmes Ward and the audience.

Proof of vaccination was required for attendance at the event.

A Pulitzer-winning journalist known best for her work on the New York Times 1619 Project, tracing slavery’s role in America, Ms. Hannah-Jones made headlines again recently when the University of North Carolina offered her a journalism school professorship but dragged its heels on tenure.

In the end she instead accepted a teaching post at Howard University, the historically black institution founded in 1867.

“I have always regretted that I didn’t go to Howard. Joining that school and that legacy is going to be amazing,” she told the audience, which was studded with alumnae of the Washington, D.C., university including Dr. Larry Morse, president of its board of trustees, and other current and former trustees.

“I didn’t know a place like Howard existed,” Ms. Hannah-Jones told the audience, also noting that this was her first trip to Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Dyson: “We built this country, not just by building it with our hands but with our intelligence, too.” — Jeanna Shepard

“I didn’t know there was a place like the Vineyard, where black people can go and be themselves,” she said. “I was in my 30s before I knew. You don’t know if you haven’t been exposed to things.”

She said she plans to return to the Island with her family. “It’s important for our kids to see things and experience spaces like this one,” she said.

Mr. Dyson is no stranger to the Vineyard. A writer, academic and ordained Baptist minister who teaches at Vanderbilt University, where he is on the faculty of both the college and the divinity school, he is a famously compelling speaker who tackles race and culture with intellectual authority fired by evangelical passion.

“I love this woman, and you see why I love her,” he said, drawing applause and cheers after Ms. Hannah-Jones’s first remarks.

“She made totemic, symbolic, unforgettable 1619. Folks who don’t know about it, who don’t want to know about it, who thought they shouldn’t know about it — got to deal with it. She put it on the map,” he said.

Ms. Hannah-Jones’s work on the 1619 Project has drawn the ire of conservatives who have targeted critical race theory as an assault on white culture rather than a rebalancing of the historical narrative.

“The story now is that white people are oppressed,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said Thursday. But that story has dangerous implications, particularly in the current political climate, she continued.

“One political party doesn’t believe in majority rule,” she said. “One-party rule is always corrupting. It doesn’t matter what party it is.”

Crowd filled the pews at Union Chapel. — Jeanna Shepard

Legislation in several states to outlaw teaching the 1619 Project in public schools “goes hand in hand with voter suppression laws,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said.

Jim Crow began similarly, she said, as a series of laws limiting the rights of blacks.

“If you don’t have the ballot, every other right you have is in jeopardy,” she told the crowd. “The forces going toward democracy seem very weak right now.”

Yet America’s democracy, from its very establishment, has been built on a foundation of black labor, both speakers said.

“We were actually founded not as a democracy but as a slaveholding republic,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said.

“What this woman argues is, without 1619 and the enslavement of the vast numbers of black people, American democracy don’t even exist. It has no premise or predicate. It has no foundation,” Mr. Dyson said. “We built this country, not just by building it with our hands but with our intelligence, too. Black genius ain’t no new idea.”

While assailing racism, Mr. Dyson more than once addressed as allies the white members of the largely black crowd.

“We have studied whiteness as a matter of our existence. White folks ain’t got to know nothing about Negroes to survive — and I don’t mean individual white brothers and sisters. I see them here in the audience and I love them and I appreciate you and I don’t want you to take this personally at all, just intellectually and systemically,” he said, drawing good-natured laughter in the pews.

“Encourage fellow white brothers and sisters to start behaving,” Mr. Dyson added, and the laughter erupted into applause.

Among the questions posed to the two speakers by Ms. Holmes Ward, a WCVB-TV journalist and clerk of the Union Chapel Education Foundation, was “How do you stay strong?”

“I’m a long-distance runner,” Mr. Dyson said, speaking metaphorically and citing the frequent racial abuse he has received over his more than 30 years of publishing, speaking and teaching.

Historic wooden octagon frequently resounded with cheers and applause. — Jeanna Shepard

“I thank God for that longevity and the ability to keep wrIting and keep thinking, because I’ve got to fight back through that pen and my words,” he said.

Words are also sword and shield for Ms. Hannah-Jones, who has occasionally shown her cutting edge on social media — notably in a Twitter beef with former Fox News personality Megyn Kelly earlier this month.

“That Twitter is on fire!” Ms. Holmes Ward said. “What is up with Megyn?”

“There are certain of us who are known because we have done work,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said, adding that Ms. Kelly lacks a substantial body of work.

“When you’re motivated by the work and not by fame, you engage in a different way,” she told the audience.

While she engages through pen and keyboard, Ms. Hannah-Jones said, there are many other ways to join the struggle.

“When it seems like what we’re up against is so overwhelming, it can paralyze you and you don’t do anything. We all have our weapons, so pick your weapon,” she said.

“Your weapon might be that you’re a teacher and you’re educating students. You might be a voting organizer. Whatever it is, pick your weapon. Just make sure you’re in the fight.”