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State of New York State History

The Amistad Commissions: New York versus New Jersey

On September 8, I had the honor of boarding the Amistad docked in Yonkers, New York. The event was a last minute one arranged in part through the African American Westchester 400 (AAW400) and the City of Yonkers. I am a member of that committee. Although the 400th anniversary of the event is over, the work continues to tell the story of the African contribution to the creating and building of our country, our state, and our county.

What is the status of the anniversary commissions now? Previously I have written about the federal commission which was created (Slavery Quadricentennial: The 400 Years of African-American History Commission). Not to repeat that post, but there are observations worth noting:

1. When I reviewed the situation in the spring of 2019 of the commission created by law in 2016, the status was dismal. At that point, nothing had been done, deadlines were not being met, and the prospect of funding to organizations to hold programs had not been realized. Not surprisingly, that condition persisted throughout the spring and summer.

2. The events that did occur through the commission operating through the National Park Service tended to be in Virginia at or near the site where the first Africans to the British colonies arrived. There was no national presence. The closest action at the national level probably was the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times dedicated to 1619. That garnered attention. With the related curriculum materials and articles/podcasts, the New York Times likely is to be the most prominent player in the national arena on the subject of 1619.

Yes, it could have happened through the federal commission but it did not. One wonders if the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution which also has a federal commission will repeat this scenario.

States also had the opportunity to act. In New York, an act establishing the 400 Years of African History Commission passed the state Assembly and Senate. It has not been signed into law although in theory it still could be signed by Governor at any time even though the legislature is not in session. According to the stipulations, the commission is scheduled to submit a report yesterday on October 1 summarizing its planned activities, funds received and spent, and recommendations.

The mission of the state commission if created was similar to the national commission. It was to promote awareness and education of the African presence in the United States since 1619. Although New York was mentioned by name in the proposed legislation its purview was the entire United States. Funding was to be available for communities, organizations, and research. None of this has happened so far at the state level and now that the anniversary has passed, it remains to be seen if anything will happened. No specific government funding was included anyway.

These developments reminded me of the creation of the Amistad Commission here in New York in 2005.

New York State’s Amistad Commission is charged with researching and surveying the extent to which the African slave trade, American slavery and its aftermath and legacy is included in the curricula of New York state schools; and make recommendations to the Governor and Legislature regarding the implementation of education and awareness programs into schools curricula. The Commission will focus on the contributions of African-Americans in building our country, American History including Abolitionists, Civil Rights movements and other developments to create a greater awareness about the nation’s involvement in slavery to inspire acknowledgement and informed dialogue.

In 2005, New York’s Legislature created an Amistad Commission to review state curriculum regarding how American slavery is taught. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during this period of American history and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country. It is vital to educate our citizens about our nation’s involvement in slavery to nullify the pervasive myth that Northerners, especially New Yorkers were innocent of slavery. The intention is to explore how slavery is interpreted to our students and the public and seek informed, balanced approaches. We will focus on historical content as well as pedagogy on how to teach slavery, with the hope that it be presented with sensitivity in learning environments and will contribute to the principles of justice, and dignity in a civilized society.

New Jersey, Illinois and New York have each created commissions to review how African American history and 250 years of slavery is taught in America’s classrooms.

That commission was the subject of a blog The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter? In 2016 after I learned about it. I was critical of the commission for its inactivity and its focus on the United States as a whole. It seemed to be downplaying the African and therefore slavery presence in this state while seeking to tell the story of slavery in other states, meaning the South. One obvious datum demonstrating its shortcomings was its designation of its co-chair. At the time when I wrote the post, the Commissioner of Education named on the website was no longer in that position. He had left two years earlier. I checked again just now and he is still listed on the site EVEN AFTER HIS SUCCESSOR HAS RESIGNED! Does New York even need a new commission when it already has the dormant Amistad Commission? Or should it finally remove the Amistad Commission from the state website and start over?

I was reminded of the Amistad Commission both by the arrival of the Amistad on September 8 and an announcement I received earlier in the summer from the New Jersey Amistad Commission. As the New York website notes, New Jersey was one of the handful of states which also established such commissions. Apparently it is still going strong as evident by the announcement of this summer program. As you read the notification below please note the references to the THIRTEENTH annual teach institute and the normal TWO regional institutes. In other words, it has been a continuous active presence since its founding at the same time as the New York Amistad Commission.


The New Jersey Amistad Commission is proud to present its Thirteenth Amistad Commission Annual Summer Institute for Teachers to be held August 19-24, 2019. This year, the two regional institutes are combined into one large curriculum development and pedagogy consortium for administrators, and classroom teachers. Our aim is to teach additional methodological and pedagogical techniques using special topics in history, pursuant to our mandate to infuse African American history into the K-12 curriculum (NJ Rev Stat § 52:16A-87-89 (2013)).

This summer’s Institute is timed to correlate with the international recognition activities commemorating the 400-year anniversary of the first documented arrival “20 odd” captured and enslaved Africans to the Jamestown settlement on August 24, 1619. It is a five (5) day residential program designed to give New Jersey educators unique access to prominent colonial history scholars onsite Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, Colonial Williamsburg and Tidewater Virginia.

These historic places offer visual and interactive history, unearthed archaeological exhibits and re-enactments that tell a hard story about the beginnings of involuntary servitude in America. The experience is designed to facilitate educators’ meaningful study and better understanding of this period in history.

The aim of the institute is to make the most of this experience in historic places by supplementing existing methodological and pedagogical techniques, using hands-on or experiential learning, stimulating creativity, reacquainting users with primary and secondary resources, providing lectures, multimedia presentations, teaching strategies, lesson plan writing and alignment of curriculum to New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS) and Amistad Curriculum.

A significant aspect of the professional development curriculum training is enabling educators’ experts use of the Amistad web-based multimedia curriculum resource, An Inclusive Journey Through American History (  

There is no comparison between the success of the New Jersey program in contrast to the complete and total failure of the New York State Amistad Commission. At this point, there is no constructive purpose in trying to approve the current proposal in New York for the 400 year anniversary commission. Instead of focusing on events in Virginia, Texas with the Juneteenth, and the Amistad, we should be focusing on events here in New York. That is why I am working with my local state senator to create the Bicentennial Freedom Commission in recognition of the end of legalized slavery in New York State on July 4, 1827.

5 thoughts on “The Amistad Commissions: New York versus New Jersey

  1. On Oct 2, 2019, at 2:53 PM, IHARE NYS History Community wrote:
    > it still could be signed by Governor at any time even though the legislature is not in session

    How the transmittal of bills to the Governor and their signing (or not) are handled is a puzzle, when the process ought to be entirely clear. This is clear:

    > § 9. Transmittal of bills to the Governor. All Senate bills passed by the Senate and sent to the Assembly for action shall, upon passage and return by the Assembly to the Senate, be transmitted by the Secretary of the Senate to the Governor within thirty days after receipt from the Assembly; except that upon the filing of a request to hold such bill with the Temporary President by the sponsor of the bill, the bill shall be held until such time as the sponsor rescinds the request to hold the bill and upon such rescission the Secretary of the Senate shall transmit the bill to the Governor within seven days.

    > § 10. Transmittal of bills to the Governor. All Assembly bills passed by the Assembly and sent to the Senate for action shall, upon passage and return by the Senate to the Assembly, be transmitted by the Index Clerk to the Governor within ten legislative days after receipt from the Senate, except that any bill returned for transmittal to the Assembly after the first of May and before the first of June shall be transmitted to the Governor within thirty days of such receipt, and any bill returned for transmittal to the Assembly on or after the first of June shall be transmitted to the Governor within forty-five days of such receipt.

    Whatever is happening now is not.

  2. Peter

    Thanks for your passion.
    We need a group of outstanding historians, someone from the NY Academy, you and a few others, to get Albany’s attention.
    Wish it could happen

  3. Please send me details re Bicentennial Freedom Commission so I may discuss this with my State legislators. Thank you for the work you do.

    1. Thank you for your request. At the moment there is no Bicentennial Freedom Commission. I created that name with the recommendation that New York State establish it. If that should happen,then I definitely will be writing about it.

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