Teaching African-American history in New Jersey’s schools

About 100 educators were at a 4-day workshop as part of the Amistad Commission’s annual summer institute.

The Amistad was a ship carrying slaves who revolted in 1839.

In 2002, then-Assemblyman William Payne Jr. got a law passed, named for the Amistad, that mandated the teaching of African-American history in all New Jersey public schools.

The 23-member Amistad Commission meets quarterly to promote and protect the law. Former Paterson Mayor Jeff Jones is a member of the commission.

“Many of our young people, particularly African-Americans, have a sense of lack of identity, that ‘I’m just here.’ Once you begin to crack that seam and begin to understand ‘no, you’re not just here, you live here, you have contributions to make, there’s things you can do,’ you’ll see change. You’ll see reduction in crime. You’ll see more students want to go on to professional careers,” Jones said.

The literature on the table conveys what the conference is about; “What Is History?”, “Brown v. Board of Education”, “New Film ‘Rosewald’ Tells Story of Jewish Philanthropist Who Transformed Black Lives”, “Where Did All the Black Teachers Go?”, “What It Means To Be Black in the American Educational System”.

“If all students around the country were made aware of the contributions of African-Americans, a lot of the issues that we’re having now would not be taking place at all,” said commission member Andrea Roseborough-Eberhard.

An understanding of history is the bedrock of the Amistad Law.

“We were told everybody on the plantation was very happy. We understand now that that’s not true. It’s important for our students to know just what has happened from 1619 to the present and the impact that it has on their self-identity,” said commission member Thomas Puryear.

The Amistad Commission is a state agency in, but not of, the state Department of Education. Executive Director Dr. Stephanie Harris says no other state has gone to the lengths New Jersey has to foster African-American history.

“Right now we have three other states that have actually passed a law. I sit here in front of you as still the only executive director in the nation that actually has done this work. We have no other states that have so actively taken it on with such a seriousness and veracity that they’ve actually created an office that actually operationalizes that mandate,” Harris said.

Last week Rowan hosted a South Jersey equivalent.

So here is one more way New Jersey leads the nation — not in property taxes, not in foreclosures, but in having a mandate to teach African-American history for the sake of the greater good.

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