In 2005, during Governor George Pataki’s administration, the New York State Legislature created the Amistad Commission to review the state’s curriculum about the slave trade.
“All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country,” the Amistad Commission website says. “It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”
Unfortunately, the Amistad Commission’s effort to update the state’s slavery curriculum has been a failure.
The legislation authorizing the commission is New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Article 57B (57.51-57.54). It provides the historical background for the importance of the subject:
1. During the period beginning late in the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, millions of persons of African origin were enslaved and brought to the Western Hemisphere, including the United States of America; anywhere from between twenty to fifty percent of enslaved Africans died during their journey to the Western Hemisphere; the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was part of a concerted effort of physical and psychological terrorism that deprived groups of people of African descent the opportunity to preserve many of their social, religious, political and other customs; the vestiges of slavery in this country continued with the legalization of second class citizenship status for African-Americans through Jim Crow laws, segregation and other similar practices; the legacy of slavery has pervaded the fabric of our society; and in spite of these events there are endless examples of the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.
It also calls upon our civic and moral responsibility to remember what happened.
2. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.
And it declares the policy of the State to fulfill this responsibility through the schools.
3. It is the policy of the state of New York that the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the depth of their impact in our society, and the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country is the proper concern of all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of the state of New York.
Finally, it authorizes the establishment of a commission to act to fulfill that policy.
4. It is therefore desirable to create a state-level commission, which shall research and survey the extent to which the African slave trade and slavery in America is included in the curricula of New York state schools, and make recommendations to the legislature and executive regarding the implementation of education and awareness programs in New York concerned with the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country, and the contributions of African-Americans in building our country. Such recommendations may include, but not be limited to, the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty; (emphasis added) and suggestions for revisions to the curricula and textbooks used to educate the students of New York state to reflect a more adequate inclusion of issues identified by the commission.
Section § 57.52 establishes the unfunded Amistad commission of 19 people with details about the composition, duties, and term of office. The commission includes, as one would hope, the Commissioner of Education; the Department of Education is called upon to provide technical assistance.
Section § 57.53 details the duties and responsibilities. The commission has a very broad mandate and scope truly national in perspective.
1. to survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.
2. to compile a roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers (emphasis added) on the subject of the African slave trade, American slavery and the impact of slavery on our society today, and the contributions of African-Americans to our country; and
3. to prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings (emphasis added) and recommendations on facilitating the inclusion of the African slave trade, American slavery studies, African-American history and special programs in the educational system of the state.
On paper, this is clearly a major undertaking.
Turning now to the commission in charge of fulling this mission, one does indeed note the listing of the Commissioner of Education as part of the team – John P. King. He has not been the Commissioner for over a year.
This raises the question of whether or not the Amistad Commission is a viable entity. Surely if it still functioned, the new Commissioner of Education would be listed. It is reasonable to conclude that this Commission is defunct, and has been for years.
The Commission’s website has a tab for upcoming meetings. When I first checked it several months ago, none were scheduled. That is still true as of the writing of this post. The Commission does not appear to be functioning and hasn’t for a long time.
Need more documentary proof? Under a listing of current exhibitions at the New York State Museum, one finds two that closed in September of 2013: “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” and “I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell”.
It is apparently necessary to point out that is hasn’t been 2013 for several years now. The Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region conference for 2014 is listed, though the 2015 conference is not. This is a website that needs serious work.
However, someone is still adding items to the Amistad Commission website, under the “Resources” tab.
There is a notice for an event for the 2016 Martin Luther King Day holiday.
There is a link titled “African American History of Western New York” – it goes to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Buffalo.
There is a link to the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture which does seems appropriate and does work.
Then there is a link to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s November 2015 announcement, of a new Path through History website which is of questionable relevance to the purpose of the Amistad Commission.
Several additional conferences, exhibits, and events from 2015 are listed so evidently some effort was made by someone to stay current.
None of these are events created by the Amistad Commission.
So let’s return to what was emphasized in the legislation that established the Amistad Commission:
the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty;
roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers;
prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings
While other organizations are active in this subject area, there is no information on the website listing the members of the Amistad Commission; no programs it has developed; no evidence that it functions as a coordinator for any events; and no submitted reports whatsoever.
In other words, there is no Amistad Commission – apparently, there never has been.
Peter Evans says
The old “saw” sings true once again, “You Get What You Pay For”.
Unfunded mandates…even those backed by NYS Law….simply go no where.
People of quality i.e. people with the appropriate credentials and stature within the community simply already have a very full plate. How on earth can we expect them or anyone to accept responsibility for such an ambitious and important initiative with zero resources?
The answer is obvious.
“Path Through History” was yet another similar initiative.
Yes, there were some of us who were willing to serve on the regional PTH workgroups for a year or two but ultimately our efforts followed the money. None of us are independently wealthy and all of us who are salaried by or through some historical entity either government or non-profit are accountable to those who pay our salary, not the Governor nor the NYS Legislature….therefore we have set up a scenario for instant and expected failure. Smart people should know these basic truths, so why do they keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different out come this time?
In some circles of human applied psychology this scenario is the perfect definition of or for “insanity”.
What more can be said?
James S. Kaplan says
Great Article Peter.The history of AfroAmericans in New York State is sorely neglected as there are many important and fascinating figures who are ignored and presumably not taught in our schools but should be. Some of my favorites are Henry Highland Garnet, the Brooklyn clergyman and political activist who in 1865 was the first black man ever to address Congress, Philip Payton, the black real estate entrepreneur who in alliance with certain maverick Jewish land owners created black Harlem. Another New York based black leader is Marcus Garvey. Although perhaps somewhat better known, probably not enough New Yorkers know that the African independence movement began at Garvey’s Liberty Hall on 138th Street, and that it was Garvey disciples such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta that would change the political history of Africa.
I would love to see the Amistad commission explore these and other similar figures.
CK Philippo says
Video of some meetings from 2012, 2013, and 2014 can be found embedded or linked at http://www.dos.ny.gov/amistad/archivedmeetings.html
Videos for January 27, 2010 and December 9, 2013 are not linked there despite also being posted on YouTube by NYSDOS. Whether that is otherwise a complete list of all the meetings that have ever been held, I don’t know.
CK Philippo says
Nice coverage by Politico http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2016/01/8588338/state-slavery-education-commission-remains-quiet and brief mention by Albany Times Union blog http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/245446/a-m-roundup-stop-and-go-action-to-fill-court-of-appeals/