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State of New York State History

The NYS American Revolution 250th Commission: A Big Step Forward

Co-sponsors New York State Senator Shelley Mayer and Assemblymember Carrie Woerner

The New York State American Revolution 250th Commission took a big step forward on June 8, 2021. The New York State Assembly and Senate unanimously passed A4742B/S04410-C the “New York State Two Hundred Fiftieth Commemoration Act.” The bill now goes to the Governor for signing along with a slew of other such bills typically passed in the waning days of the session. Based on precedent, one should not expect a signing until possibly December with some negotiating carrying forward into January. That is what happened with Four Hundred Year Commission for 1619. It finally was signed into law in January 2020 with some changes particularly to the makeup of the Commission before becoming a COVID casualty.

The bill passed this year is a vast improvement over the original bill proposed last session that I wrote about in a previous blog. By tracing the iterations of the bill one can observe how the sausage is made. My understanding is that there were some difficult behind the scene discussions over the specific terms of the bill as will be seen below. It still remains to be seen

1 What bill the Governor will actually sign?
2 Who will be appointed to the Commission?
3 What funding will be provided to implement the vision of the legislation?

In this blog I wish to focus on the Commission, the Indian Nations, and the State Historian through the multiple versions in the 2021 session.

COMMISSION

The original Commission in 2020 consisted of 31 individuals, an unwieldy number. In the first iteration in 2021, the following were removed from the Commission:

1. New York State Military Museum Director
2. Saratoga National Historical Park Superintendent
3. Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership Director
4. Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor Director
5. Maurice D. Hinchey Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area Director
6. Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Director
7. Association of Public Historians of New York President
8. Preservation League of New York State Chairperson
9. Humanities New York Board member.

Instead, a new section was inserted whereby the Commission would “coordinate and consult” with these organization as well as other similar organizations in the “development, planning, promotion, and coordination” of 250th activities. This change creates a more manageable Commission while opening it up to contacting a wider range of organizations.

The new Commission now was to consist to twenty people. Since the reduction of 31 by 9 leaves 22, there appeared to have been a typo. I did point this out to the bill sponsors. While in one version the correction was made to show 22, this discrepancy became moot. The number of members then was reduced to 13, an even more manageable number. Although the number remained at 13 in the final version, the composition of the 13 changed drastically.

To try to track the Commission changes is challenging. It reflects the behind-the-scene wrangling that occurred. One significant change involved the Indian Nations. In the 2020 bill:

a duly designated representative from [each of?] the Cayuga Nation, the Oneida Indian Nation, the Onondaga Indian Nation, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Seneca Nation of Indians, the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, and the Tuscarora Nation;

were part of the 31-member commission. Then in 2021, they were moved to non-voting members of the Commission. At that point the ten regional economic development councils and the commissioner of Empire State Development totally dominated the 13-memebr Commission.

Subsequently the Indian Nations were removed from their observer status on the Commission as well and a new section was added:

The commission shall coordinate and consult with, on a government to government basis, with the Cayuga Nation, the Oneida Indian Nation, the Onondaga Indian Nation, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Seneca Nation of Indians, the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, and the Tuscarora Nation.

Presumably the Commission also will consult on a government-to-government basis with England, Canada, France, Germany, and Poland too.

The State Historian also was removed from observer status to becoming a voting member of the Commission.

Another big change was in dropping a representative from each of the ten regional economic development counsels from the Commission. The head of Empire State Development is on the Commission so there was no need for each of regions to be represented individually. But with the Indian Nations, REDCs, and various organizations removed from the Commission, who is left after the Commission Chair, Department of Education, Empire State Development and the State Historian?

three members shall be appointed by the governor, two members shall be appointed by the temporary [she is still temporary?] president of the senate, two members shall be appointed by the speaker of the assembly, one member shall be appointed by the minority leader of the senate and one member shall be appointed by the minority leader of the assembly, to the extent practicable, these appointments shall include a representative from each of the ten regional economic development councils;

Don’t worry. I am not going to go through the configurations that led to this clause. Now at least the appointees and with professional background from the 2020 bill makes sense. Originally, an appointee had to be a “local government historian, academic historian, museum professional, social studies teacher or professor, tourism professional, archeologist, anthropologist, or [have] other expertise in the field of New York state history and/or historic preservation. Now the qualifications for being an appointee was revised to include “professor,” a positive change. This section about qualifications made no sense to me either without “professor” in the 2020 bill or with “professor” in the 2021 bill. Since all the members were heads of various organizations, there seemed to be no rational purpose in specifying the professional background of the appointees. Now all those organizations have been removed and replaced by political appointees.

There is an opportunity here at least for the Commission to be a history-based one rather than a political-bureaucratic based one. With the 400-Year Commission, the members were selected but the press event never materialized due to COVID so their names were never made public to the best of my knowledge. Those people might provide a precedent for gauging the membership of this new commission. If you know you there were, I would appreciate learning their names.

It is quite possible that as with the 400-Year Commission, the Governor will request more control over the Commission before signing the bill into law. The number on the Commission and the number appointed by the Governor may both change. Undoubtedly there will be more wrangling to come and we may not know the results for months.

COMMISSION ACTIVITIES

What is the Commission actually supposed to do? Here are some relevant clauses about is activities.

1. coordinating forums across the state to seek ideas from the public on the commemoration including how New Yorkers, Americans and those from other countries may celebrate such anniversary;
2. coordinating with civic, educational and heritage organizations to develop public interest and involvement in the planning and development of the commemoration;
3. promoting and encouraging educational outreach programs using media and technology including electronic communications to achieve national and international impact;
4. coordinating the planning of commemorative events for all interested communities throughout the state;
5. inviting other interested states and nations to participate in programs and events for the commemoration;
6. coordinating and promoting the holding of meetings, conferences, seminars and conventions in interested communities using such anniversary as an attraction and theme;
7. seeking funding from private individuals, foundations and corporations to support capital improvements, preservation and conservation needs associated with events and sites commemorating such anniversary;
8. coordinating and cooperating with state entities and tourist promotion agencies, as defined in article five-A of the economic development law;
9. coordinating and cooperating with local, state and federal entities including those relating to heritage area promotion and any federal commission created to participate in planning and development of such anniversary observance.

And if that was not enough, the legislation this year added:

coordinating and promoting the holding of community engagement and educational events in interested communities using such anniversary as an attraction and theme.

Putting the raising of funds aside, who is supposed to do all this promoting and coordinating throughout the state? If you answered the Office of State History, you would be right. “Office” is a euphemism for one person, the State Historian, Devin Lander. The bulk of these activities mean the work he has do to do all by himself.

THE STATE HISTORIAN: WHO IS GOING TO DO THE WORK?

Can the State Historian do what the bill lists as the activities of the Commission? Consider the example of Erika Sanger, Executive Director of the Museum Association of New York (MANY). She just announced a series of fall programs in the ten regions of the state used by MANY. Combined they entail twenty days of travel. Add a spring program and the total is forty days or 8 work-weeks. Now add a statewide conference and the time required to plan all these events and significant portion of the work-year already is locked up.

But regional meetings are not sufficient. The regions are big and attendance is skewed towards where in a region a meeting is held. For example in the Hudson Valley, the lovely Wallace Center in Hyde Park, Dutchess County frequently is used. It is neither the demographic nor geographic center of the region as I first pointed out in the regional Path through History kickoff meeting held January 25, 2013. The attendance reflects that location (I speak from experience). The Mid-Hudson Valley REDC ameliorates that shortcoming by scheduling county meetings for the funding process.

There are 62 counties in the state. One person from Albany cannot hold 62 meetings multiple times per year. However, the division of the state into the ten regions as multiple statewide organizations do provides a solution. The Office of the State Historian needs ten regional assistants. These ten individuals for the American Revolution 250th could be based in the regional offices of the NYSOPRHP or REDC. They would hold county meetings, regional meetings, as well participate in state meetings.

That still leaves a lot do.

The Commission will be consulting with other states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and from Rhode Island to Virginia.

The Commission will be consulting with other countries as noted above.

The Commission will be consulting with AMC. When it four-season show “Turn” on the spy ring in New York aired, Virginia advertised on every show to come to Virginia and see where the Revolution occurred. New York did not advertise at all. We should not make the same mistake when the 250th anniversary of the events depicted in the show occurs. This time we should be ready with advertisements and events so viewers can visit the actually sites of the events they just watched on TV.

Let’s keep in mind that while the 250th is going on there will be other history anniversaries as well

2024 Bicentennial of the return of Lafayette
2024 Centennial of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
2024 Centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act
2025 Bicentennial of Erie Canal
2027 Bicentennial of New York’s “Juneteenth,” 38 years before Texas.

According to the bill’s mission statement:

The legislature further finds that the 250th anniversary and the years proceeding it offers great opportunity to educate and inspire the people of the state to increase recognition and appreciation of New York’s role in the American Revolution and subsequent civil rights struggles as well as the complex nature of the state and nation’s history with regards to 8 the ideals of liberty and freedom. Therefore, it is the intention of the legislature to establish a commission for planning and development for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in New York state to take place in coordination with the national celebration.

If we are serious about fulfilling that mission, then we need to be serious about the staff and funding required and not let it become another Amistad Commission (The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?, January 18, 2016).

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