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The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?

“In 2005 [during Governor Pataki’s administration], New York’s Legislature created an Amistad Commission to review state curriculum regarding 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. 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.”

This excerpt comes from the website of the Amistad Commission which is part of the Department of State in the organization chart of New York State (http://www.dos.ny.gov/amistad/index.html).

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 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.

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 and the Department of Education is called upon to provide technical assistance for the completion of the task as needed.

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 clearly is 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. However, the name of the Commissioner listed is John P. King; he, of course, 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 but lives on only on the New York State website.

The 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:

An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War
Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
Exhibition Hall
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/CivilWar.cfm

I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell
Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
South Lobby
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/tarbell.cfm

Is it 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 but the one from 2015 is not. This is a website that needs serious work.

However, someone is still adding items to the Amistad Commission website under Resources. There is a notice about one event for the 2016 Martin Luther King Day holiday. There is a listing for AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY OF WESTERN NEW YORK which when clicked takes you 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 the Governor’s announcement in November, 2015, 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 spent to stay current. One should note that these are not events created by the Amistad Commission but items listed by the Commission somewhat like the Path through History listing events without creating them either.

Finally, let’s return to the emphasized items above in the legislation.

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 do things in this subject area, I did not locate any information on the website listing the rooster of these individuals, any programs the Amistad Commission has developed, any evidence that it functions as a coordinator for such events, or any reports that have been submitted. Perhaps if the Governor can be persuaded to call a history meeting in Albany as recommended in my New Year Resolution post, a decision can be made to fish or cut bait with something that at present only exists on the web and not in the real world.

16 thoughts on “The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. Nice piece!

    One wonders who is responsible for the website.

    Past news articles seem to indicate that one issue was that the requisite number of members had not been appointed. The politicians or officials who had failed to comply with the law, thereby violating their oath of office, should have been taken to task at that time. John B. King, Jr.’s failure to help steer the Amistad Commission towards its legally mandated goals is just one of many things that should have rendered him ineligible for considation for any job in government or education, much less to become Acting Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education!

    “Three Are Named to Black History Panel”
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/three-are-named-to-black-history-panel/

    “4 Years After Black History Panel’s Birth, Its Work Is Still Deferred”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/12/education/12amistad.html

    “It’s time to put wind in Amistad panel’s sails to teach kids about African-American slavery history”
    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/manhattan/time-put-wind-amistad-panel-sails-teach-kids-african-american-slavery-history-article-1.147659

    “Amistad Commission Holds Public Meeting”
    http://www.examiner.com/article/amistad-commission-holds-public-meeting

    January 27, 2010 meeting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yf9bv5ms6g
    April 25, 2012 meeting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAbqnMSrA74
    September 26, 2012 meeting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_8V51_WRoE
    Comments are disabled for the above videos. The above NYSDOS-issued videos lack closed captioning, a possible violation of the ADA and New York State’s New Web Accessibility Policy?

    Amistad Commission members according to the website, with some info I could find about them:

    Robert Balachandran
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertbalachandran
    http://bellrowtitle.com/meet-our-staff

    Harold Bellinger
    http://www.c-span.org/person/?haroldbellinger
    Had been at Nassau Community College, but he does not turn up in their online directory.

    Nuriyah Angela Marie Boné-Owens
    http://www.mrsowensculturalventures.com/meet.html

    David Byer-Tyre

    https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-byer-tyre-24a0b338
    Former curator of http://www.theaamuseum.org and had been at Hofsta University and Farmindale State College, but doesn’t seem he’s at either now.

    Lisa Catalfamo
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisa-catalfamo-a520962b

    Jonathan Cornue
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathan-cornue-75980234
    http://www.moboces.org/Page/67

    Julius D. Edwards
    http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2011/03/former_human_rights_commission.html
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/julius-d-edwards-806a18a
    Seems to work for Time Warner Cable in Charlotte, North Carolina now?

    Frederick Harris
    Possibly:
    http://polisci.columbia.edu/people/profile/83
    http://caapsociety.org/content/fredrick-c-harris-director

    Sylvia Wong Lewis
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/sylviawonglewis
    http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett/2012/04/06/from-shanghai-to-harlem-with-sylvia-wong-lewis
    http://www.yonarrative.com/about/
    Apparently one of Andrew Cuomo’s appointees to the Amistad Commision.

    Robert V. Lloyd
    https://www.nysenate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/charles-j-fuschillo-jr/senator-fuschillo-congratulates-robert-lloyd
    http://www.liccv.com/meetthedirector.html

    Jacqueline Musiitwa, Esq.
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacquelinemusiitwa
    http://www.weforum.org/agenda/authors/jacqueline-musiitwa/
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jacqueline-muna-musiitwa/
    http://hojalawgroup.com/bios.html

    Enid Schildkrout
    http://www.amnh.org/science/divisions/anthro/bio.php?scientist=schildkrout
    http://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/29/sty

    e/enid-schildkrout-married-to-editor.html

    Mary Theresa Streck
    http://wamc.org/post/meet-albanys-first-female-catholic-priest#stream/0
    http://blog.timesunion.com/opinion/bucking-the-rules-a-troy-woman-decides-become-a-catholic-priest/25215/
    http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2013/sep/15/0916_priest/
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-theresa-streck-86babb17
    Principal of Ark Community Charter School in Troy (which I think closed in 2014 http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Last-day-upbeat-at-Troy-s-Ark-charter-school-5585784.php though its website http://www.thearkinc.org does not make that clear) and ordained as a Catholic priest by a marginal group not recognized by the Catholic Church.

    James Turner
    Possibly: http://www.asrc.cornell.edu/people/turner.cfm
    or possibly: http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/turner_jamesc.html

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yf9bv5ms6g January 27, 2010 meeting
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAbqnMSrA74 April 25, 2012 meeting
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_8V51_WRoE September 26, 2012 meeting

  4. Wow, Peter, I had no idea this commission even existed! It is admittedly a very ambitious agenda and a necessary one.

    I tried very hard to get something, anything, into our heritage event for the Civil War last summer that would touch on slavery to no avail, including getting no help from the MHAHP even so much as a few books to sell for them. This was a bit unsettling to say the least because I kinda felt that slavery was somewhat of an issue in the Civil War era [call me a dumb ass I guess 🙂 ]

    The PBS Abolitionists [admit I have only watched the first episode] was a disappointment…no mention of New York Quakers freeing slaves in the 1700’s, no mention of the Nine Partners Abolitionist Catechism used as early as 1810, actually no mention that New York was even involved in any way shape or form, and thus far no acknowledgement of Fergus Bordewich’s or Eric Foner’s work on the topic. It seems like many seem to think that history happened everywhere except in NYS. Let’s see if they prove me wrong with the next episode…I think I have it in the DVR.

    As Town Historian I am going to bring this commission’s mission to the attention of our local school board and see what can be done about moving forward on some part of it without the help of said commission which appears to be as you say defunct. But the idea need not be.

    Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention!

  5. According to early Albany-Beverwyck-Orange records, the cost of a slave was equal to the cost of 3 to 5 cows, depending on age, physical ability, etc. I also saw an estate document for a Virginia planter that said that he had approximately 300 slaves valued at $150 each. That was dated around 1830 or so.
    Why would something so valuable be treated so poorly as to be destroyed: “…….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 …” ?????
    I have always wondered about this. It is not like the Dutch to throw away money.
    I know that during the Civil War more soldiers died of disease than died in battle.

  6. Would you be able to chat about this via phone for a couple of minutes at some point this afternoon?

    Bill Mahoney
    POLITICO New York

  7. And yet “they” advertise an upcoming MLK event on that same defunct website. . . .

    WNYC & APOLLO THEATER PRESENT:
    RACE AND PRIVILEGE: EXPLORING MLK’S TWO AMERICAS
    FREE TO THE PUBLIC: SUNDAY JANUARY 17, 2016 AT 3:00 PM

  8. I would have the websites as you listed them below but they are extinct.

    An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War
    Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
    Exhibition Hall
    For more information: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/CivilWar.cfm

    I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell
    Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
    South Lobby
    For more information: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/tarbell.cfm

  9. Hi Dr. Feinman,
    I wanted to make sure you saw that your point about the Amistad Commission has been picked up by the press:

    http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2016/01/8588338/state-slavery-education-commission-remains-quiet

    All the best to you on this MLK Day,
    David

    David Buchwald
    New York State Assemblyman, 93rd Assembly District
    representing Bedford, Harrison, Lewisboro, Mt. Kisco, New Castle, North Castle, North Salem, Pound Ridge and White Plains

  10. Peter, good investigative work!!! I really appreciate your watch-dogging!
    Sally

    Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.
    Founding Director, The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation
    Adjunct Faculty, The Renée Crown University Honors Program, Syracuse University
    Public Scholar, New York Council for the Humanities

  11. A colleague and I wrote a Black History unit for 4th grade. It covers slave trade, the middle passage and pre-Civil War using primary/secondary sources, drama, poetry, historical narratives and music. We’re very happy with our product. Perhaps the State might be interested in it.

    1. Hello. My name is Lola Rozier. I am a retired educator with a great interest in providing this information to our parents and students. I would love to review your product.
      My email address: Lolrozier@aol.com

  12. The history of the African slave trade was one of my major fields of teaching and research at NYU. I have much information—including maps, illustrations etc.—on the subject. Perhaps we could run a workshop and exhibition at our new facility. Or something in the schools. At the very least I’d be happy to give a lecture or two on the subject at our Buckbee Center. Maybe we could pressure our local Assemblyman or State Senator to provide some funding.

  13. I’m not sure why you reference a racist group (Black Lives Matter) in your article’s heading. In any event, all this is not surprising given that we live in a poitically-correct minded state like New York. Why is this any more important than any other aspect of history? I would argue it is not. Is there any such mandate to teach New York’s role in the Revolution or in American architecture, for example?

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