Without the Covid-19 pandemic, there would have been an 1827 Freedom Bicentennial Commission passed this legislative session. The bill would have been passed by both the Senate and the Assembly. It would then have been sent to the Governor for signature. Between the summer and December, it would have remained on the Governor’s desk. At some point in December, he would either have signed the bill or sent it back for revisions. But because of the coronavirus, that is not what happened.
I can speak with some authority on this bill, because I suggested it. Back in 2019, I suggested to my State Senator Shelley Mayer, Chair, Education Committee, that there was a need for such a bill. She agreed. She spoke about it to the teachers at the Lower Hudson Valley Social Studies conference back in December when we could still meet in person. It would have been submitted this past legislative session.
I was asked to write the Purpose and Justification of the bill. Here is what I submitted:
PURPOSE GENERAL IDEA OF BILL:
The purpose of this bill is to highlight the New York story of Africans and African Americans from their first arrival here with the Dutch in 1613 to the legal end of slavery on July 4, 1827. The story involves the intersection of African, European, and Indian Nations, peoples, and people here in New York State. To do so, the Commission will partner with the scholars, history organizations, schools, and community organizations that research, exhibit, tell, and teach this story. The events and activities carried out by the commission can foster learning and developmental environments for youth, adults and seniors of all backgrounds and cultivate opportunities to foster a better understanding of the development of our state through the continuous contributions of Africans and African Americans during this period.
The contributions that Africans and African Americans have made to the founding and creating of New York State are often overlooked. Besides the events in Virginia in 1619, the Amistad in Connecticut in 1839, and Juneteenth in Texas in 1865, there is a New York African story to tell. There are events that happened here. There are people who were born, lived, and died here. There are buildings and burials that are located here. There are sites which need to be preserved, markers, memorials, and statues which need to be maintained or created. There is curriculum which needs to be revised to integrate the African story in New York’s and the nation’s story. There is cultural heritage tourism to be developed and/or promoted and field trips to be taken. As the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the country approaches, it is important that the African and African American contribution to that event be told as part of the celebration. It is even more important in a state of as many peoples as our own that we come together on this bicentennial anniversary of freedom and celebrate the contributions African Americans have made from 1613 to 1827 since they first arrived on the shores of the east coast to the creation of this country and the end of slavery in the state.
The idea that it is necessary stems from the fact that African American contributions to the founding of our state and country are great and expansive and as such, we should establish a commission with a purpose to highlight and integrate them into our education, tourism, and cultural heritage. In addition, that it should be done in ways in which, entire communities can unify and commemorate an anniversary such as this one.
I borrowed some of the wording from the existing 400 Year Commission bill written in recognition of 1619. That event had nothing to do with New York. If we want to recognize the quadricentennial of slavery in New York, we should have a 2026 commission. There still is time to create one.
THE QUADRICENTENNIAL COMMISSION
The 1619 Quadricentennial Commission bill ironically was passed by the Senate and Assembly on June 19, 2019. That passage was not in recognition of Juneteenth, it just happened to be the final day of the 2019 legislative session. The bill then went to the Governor where it sat until December. Needless to say, this commission which had no funding and was for an anniversary which already had occurred in August 2019, already was behind schedule. A revised bill to give the Governor more power was passed in January 2020 with a new expiry date in June 2021. The commission was to have 15 members. I was informed in February, 2020, that these individuals had been selected. The main issue left was arranging for the proverbial photo-op. In March, of course, everything changed. To the best of my knowledge, nothing has happened since. Given that the commission has not been formed, it expires in less than a year, it commemorates an event already a year late, and the events that have transpired since then, it seems unlikely that this commission will ever amount to much.
My first blog on Juneteenth was back in 2016 (Forgetting July 4, 1827). My concern was that an event in Texas that had nothing to do with New York was being celebrated while New Yorkers were generally ignorant about 1827 when slavery legally ended here. Flash forward to 2020 and suddenly Juneteenth became a national story. As a result of George Floyd and a proposed campaign rally in Tulsa, everybody became aware of Juneteenth.
In New York, Juneteenth became a state-recognized holiday. The Governor issued an Executive Order stating so:
EXECUTIVE ORDER: DECLARING JUNETEENTH A HOLIDAY FOR NEW YORK STATE EMPLOYEES
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of the State of New York, by virtue of the Constitution of the State of New York, specifically Article IV, section one, and the laws of the state of New York do hereby recognize June 19, 2020 as Juneteenth, which shall be a holiday for state employees, who if not required to work, shall be entitled to leave at full pay without charge to existing accruals and for those employees who are required to work, they shall receive one day of compensatory time.
So this year when we could not gather in groups, have parades, and when many people were home from work, Juneteenth was a holiday for state employees.
ABOLITION COMMEMORATION DAY
1827 was finally recognized this year in a bill that “Designates the second Monday in July each year as a day of commemoration, to be known as Abolition Commemoration day.” The title of the bill is:
An act to amend the executive law, in relation to the designation of Abolition Commemoration day as a day of commemoration.
It, too, has a Purpose and justification sections just as I had written for the 1827 commission.
PURPOSE OR GENERAL IDEA OF BILL:
Establish a day of commemoration to be known as Abolition Commemoration Day in New York State which will be observed annually on the second Monday of the month of July. The commemoration day will solemnly remember the abolishment of slavery in New York State on July 4, 1827 and honor the bravery and sacrifices of abolitionists of the state; those known and those whose names will never be known.
The United States has a long, complicated, violent and lucrative history in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Our nation, including New York State, has never fully acknowledged or atoned for the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, nor has the State honored those leaders who fought to abolish slavery with a day of commemoration. By designating a day of commemoration, New York will commemorate the Abolition Act that was passed by New York State legislators on March 31, 1817, which abolished slavery in New York State effective July 4, 1827.
While many enslaved Africans were ultimately taken to the southern colonies, New York State was a major importer of slave labor. In 1703, more than 42 percent of households in New York City had slaves – second behind Charleston, South Carolina – and slaves made up approximately 20 percent of New York City’s population. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the State economy and institutions throughout New York State, were dependent upon and built on the backs of slave labor. Enslaved Africans lived their entire lives in captivity, never having experienced a moment of freedom, from birth to childhood, to adulthood and finally death. The wounds that were manifested for over 200 hundred years by oppressive government laws and regulations will never begin to heal until a meaningful, respectful, and earnest effort is made by the State of New York to start the healing process and honor those that fought for the abolishment of slavery.
The American abolitionist movement started as early as the 1600s and was first led by the Quakers and Mennonites who held a belief that all human beings were worthy of equality and respect. However, it wasn’t until several decades later that the abolitionist movement started gaining support in New York State. In New York, there were many voices who called for the abolishment of slavery, some called for a gradual end like those of the New York Manumission Society. While others called for an immediate end. The literary works produced by abolitionists helped grow and sustain the antislavery conversation and gain widespread public support. Abolitionists John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish established the first African American newspaper in the United States, “Freedom’s Journal,” in New York, which was also established during the same year slavery in New York was abolished.
Additionally, a number of abolitionist newspapers were published by African Americans, such as “The Elevator,” published in Albany, New York by Stephen Myers and backed by Horace Greely (sic), Garret Smith and other white abolitionists. Steven Myers and his wife Harriet Johnson also operated the Albany Station of the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves make their way to Canada and was known as the most-organized section of the Railroad. The great Frederick Douglass was also well-known for his publication, “The North Star,” as well as his famous speeches. Others, like Sojourner Truth used their voices to advocate nationally for the abolishment of slavery and to ensure that the contributions and plight of women was included in the narrative around emancipation. And while New York later came to be known as a free-state, many abolitionists like Harriet Tubman helped African slaves escape on the Underground Railroad throughout the country and specifically in New York State. Tubman and others also used their platforms in New York State to call for the abolishment of slavery throughout the United States.
There were also countless documented and undocumented uprisings by enslaved Africans who fought for their freedom and the many unsung heroes who spoke out against slavery when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so. For these people, New York State owes a great debt and must acknowledge their sacrifices that contributed to a more unified and stronger state. The abolishment of slavery was not the result of one person’s doing, rather it was a collective movement. Nothing can remove the generational damages created as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, a civilized state can do no less than set aside one day a year to honor the brave abolitionists and atone for having engaged in the process of maintaining an exploitative, abusive, slavish society for countless generations.
There is a lot of good material here. Certainly a lot more than I included in my one-paragraph narrative. It makes me wonder which politically-active slavery historian(s) might have written/contributed to it.
Before getting too excited, it is worth noting the commemoration days in the existing law which this bill amends. See how many you recognize.
January sixth: Haym Salomon Day
January twenty-seventh: Holocaust Remembrance Day
February fourth: Rosa Parks Day
February fifteenth: Susan B. Anthony Day
February sixteenth: Lithuanian Independence Day
February twenty-eighth: Gulf War Veterans’ Day
March fourth: Pulaski Day
March tenth: Harriet Tubman Day
March twenty-ninth: Vietnam Veterans’ Day
April ninth: POW Recognition Day
April twenty-seventh: Coretta Scott King Day
April twenty-eighth: Workers’ Memorial Day
first Tuesday in May: New York State Teacher Day
May seventeenth: Thurgood Marshall Day
first Sunday in June: Children’s Day
June second: Italian Independence Day
June twelfth: Women Veterans Recognition Day
June nineteenth: Juneteenth Freedom Day
June twenty-fifth: Korean War Veterans’ Day
Second Monday in July: Abolition Commemoration Day
August twenty-fourth: Ukrainian Independence Day
August twenty-sixth: Women’s Equality Day
September eleventh: Battle of Plattsburgh Day” and also to be known as “September 11th Remembrance Day
September thirteenth: John Barry Day and also to be known as “Uncle Sam Day in the State of New York
September seventeenth: Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben Memorial Day
third Friday in September: New York State POW/MIA Recognition Day” except if such date of commemoration cannot be observed due to a religious holiday, such observances shall then be conducted on the second Friday of September
last Saturday in September: War of 1812 Day
fourth Saturday of September: Native-American Day
last Sunday in September: Gold Star Mothers’ Day
October fifth: Raoul Wallenberg Day
October eleventh: “New Netherland Day in the State of New York
October eighteenth: Disabilities History Day
October twenty-seventh: Theodore Roosevelt Day
November ninth: Witness for Tolerance Day
November twelfth: Elizabeth Cady Stanton Day
third Tuesday in November to be known as “New York State School-Related Professionals Recognition Day
November thirtieth: Shirley Chisholm Day
December third: International Day of Persons with Disabilities
December seventh: Pearl Harbor Day
December sixteenth: Bastogne Day
day of the Asian lunar calendar designated as new year to be known as “Asian New Year”
I confess that I was not aware that New York State had all these official dates of commemoration. It makes me wonder what exactly the State does on these days. It also makes me realize once again that we need a robust New York State Historian Department with the staff and resources commensurate with the responsibility of commemorating New York State history.
Before returning to 1827, let me mention once again the other event that frequently is mentioned in connection with this subject – Amistad. No, I am not referring to the failed New York State Amistad Commission. It lingers on as a defunct website that no one puts out of its misery. Instead I am referring to the active and robust New Jersey Amistad Commission which puts New York to shame.
The Amistad Commission Virtual Summer Institute Professional Development Course
The Amistad Commission – NJ Department of Education is excited to launch our inaugural on-line class, our virtual Summer Curriculum Institute Course for Educators and Administrators. Please join us.
This summer’s online course will include virtual experiential learning, primary and secondary resources, lectures, multimedia presentations, curriculum development, and teaching strategies, lesson plan writing and methodology structuring sessions, we will assemble NJ K-12 teacher, content specialist, administrators, and community stakeholders together enlisting expert scholars in the varied topic areas of each lecture.
As a condition of acceptance and full attendance teacher-scholars may: • earn up to 40 professional development credit (CEU) and • design curriculum materials. In addition, all teachers completing the training must develop lesson plans and structure content for their classrooms and agree to serve as their school and/or district resource. The Amistad Commission highlights and trains teachers every Summer on the usage of the Amistad Commission on-line textbook and model curriculum in support of the legal mandate for the teaching of American History infused with the African narrative, the web-based curriculum resource for k-12 classrooms; “An Inclusive Journey Through American History” which is available free of charge to every NJ school (www.njamistadcurriculum.net). All teachers registered for the on-line course are expected to turn-key all information and resources within their respective districts as a condition of their course admittance.
The New Jersey example reveals what can be done if one goes beyond designating days and appointing commissions for show.
The Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State is pursuing an 1827 commission also.
If New York State ever got serious about celebrating its own history we need commissions of substance and resources for:
2024: 100th anniversary Indian Citizenship Act
2025: 200th anniversary Erie Canal (which already is underway)
2026: 400th anniversary of beginning of slavery in New York
2026-2033: 250th anniversary of the American Revolution (which already is underway)
2027: 200th anniversary of the end of slavery.
August 28, 2020, marks the 8th anniversary of the Path through History Conference held in Albany to launch that initiative. You are keeping track aren’t you? I am holding the paperweight from that event plus a NYS Executive Mansion napkin I took as a souvenir from the reception held there. In his plenary address, Ken Jackson said New York State was doing a lousy job touting its own history. What’s changed in eight years?