N.J. Assemblyman William D. Payne
On August 27, 2002, the Governor of New Jersey signed into law the “Amistad Bill” (A1301), sponsored by Assemblymen William D. Payne and Craig A. Stanley. The bill created an “Amistad Commission” in honor of the enslaved Africans who gained their freedom after overthrowing the crew of the slave ship Amistad in 1839. The Commission’s mandate was to promote a wider implementation of educational awareness programs regarding the African slave trade, slavery in America, and the many contributions Africans have made to American society.
The Amistad Bill created historic legislation for not only the state of New Jersey but also for opening a revolutionary new chapter for teaching our nation’s history. The New Jersey legislation was and remains an important, national landmark event.
When the Amistad legislation was introduced and passed, the public as well as many K-12 educators, and even many of the Commissioners, presumed that the goal would be to introduce African-American history into the K-12 curriculum and to develop public programs on African-American history for children, families, and communities. Other states and cities had proposed similar legislation before 2002. In fact, a simple online search reveals curricular materials on African-American history nationwide: in Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kansas, the state of Washington, and Georgia.
Instead of following this more obvious strategy, New Jersey took a more complex challenge. The Amistad Commission’s goal is to change the landscape for the study of United States and world history by placing Africans and African Americans at the center of the narrative as agents rather than as bystanders or victims who live on the margins of the United States and the world. Our mandate has shifted from one of inclusion to one of infusion. Our goals are revolutionary because they challenge the “either-or” notion that if you study African Americans, you have to leave out the important events and people in the national narrative – the people in seats of political and economic power such as George Washington, John Marshall, Henry Ford, and Woodrow Wilson. The New Jersey Amistad Commission’s revolutionary goal is to demonstrate that everyone on the national stage not only plays a major role, but also the lives of the powerful and the less powerful are intertwined, sometimes interdependent, and sometimes these roles are reversed when the meek inherit the earth. In the case of John Marshall, if students truly understand the significance of judicial review, they will also understand the significance of judicial power in the lives of black people whether the case is Dred Scott v. Sandford or Brown v. Board of Education. We do not exclude the traditional historical narrative or its players. Rather, the Commission’s curriculum committee asserts that African Americans, and all others excluded from the national narrative, shaped this nation’s trajectory in important ways. We also assert that the significance of African Americans, and others, has been devalued in K-12 classrooms. The primary work of this Commission is to provide an inclusive social studies curriculum, especially in United States and world history. The Commission’s curriculum committee approached its work with thoughtful urgency.
Our approach also affirms the need for schools to continue to offer separate courses on African Americans as a sub-field of United States history. As in other sub-fields – women’s history, labor history, and ethnic histories – in African-American history, scholars interpret the human story from within the African-American experience, and through that particular lens, scholars reveal universal truths about the human experience. Much of the new interpretations of United States history emanate from knowledge discovered within sub-fields such as African-American history.
The scholarly study of the history of African Americans began after the Civil War with George Washington Williams’ History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, (1883). It was later promoted by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Harvard graduate and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. In 1927 Woodson designated the week between Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays as Negro History Week. It was not the study of black history in twenty-eight days it has become for many people. Rather, the week focused on bringing K-12 teachers, scholars, and community leaders together in Washington, D.C., to launch new scholarship and K-12 teaching materials to educate the nation throughout the school year. Woodson began this campaign for scholarship connected to K-12 education and community education. He sought to replace a history that had depicted slavery as benign, the Civil War as regretful, black citizenship under Reconstruction as an affront to American morals and decency, and the Klu Klux Klan as the heroic cavalry that would save the nation from its tragically dangerous mistake of black freedom.
Not until 1947 would historians finally write the entire history of black Americans in the seminal work, From Slavery to Freedom. Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary in 2007 and in its ninth edition, this work shifted thinking in colleges and universities about the role black people played in the nation. It was followed in the 1950s and 1960s with works affirming the horrors of slavery; works in the 1970s that identified new ways of hearing the voices of African Americans in the midst of their oppression; scholarship in the 1980s analyzing the variety of African-American experiences by gender, region, and class; and new research in the 1990s making African-American history not only part of the nation’s history, but also a part of world history and the African Diaspora.
In New Jersey, Illinois, and elsewhere in the United States, we know that students and their communities regard African-American history as a foreign and alien topic – a threat or topic only black students need to study. The Amistad legislation and its implementation state, “AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY IS AMERICAN HISTORY.” Perhaps the nation has denied this truth because it requires us to embrace the great national shame of slavery. It is terrifying, if not unthinkable, for most Americans to confess that slavery defines our national identity as much as freedom. In fact, slavery and freedom are fraternal twins who were born together, developed, and matured together. American slavery contradicts notions about our national identity. How can we talk about slavery, segregation, lynching, and discrimination when we are a nation that embraces liberty and equality? Historian Eric Foner of Columbia University suggests that to understand freedom, we have to analyze who has access, who is denied access, and how America’s definitions of freedom continually change. It is impossible for students to understand America, its heritage, and the legacy we all have inherited, without understanding all of its truths.
What is the role of the Amistad Commission in helping all of us, but especially our children, know their identity, legacy, and inheritance as Americans? Our job is to be a resource and support for New Jersey classroom teachers who provide our children with an exemplary educational experience that not only imparts knowledge, but also teaches them to think critically and never to stop asking “Why?” This teaches them to be good citizens who care for family, community, nation, and connections to all humanity of whatever gender, nationality, religion, or ethnicity. This teaches them to be unafraid to search for their own truths.
An Act establishing the Amistad Commission and supplementing chapter 16A of Title 52 of the New Jersey Statutes.
Be It Enacted by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey:
C.52:16A-86 Findings, declarations relative to Amistad Commission.
The Legislature finds and declares that:
Project Oversight | Kevin T. Brady, Ph.D., CICERO SystemsTM
Amistad Commission Curriculum Committee | Lillie Johnson Edwards, Ph.D., Co-Chair; Colin A. Palmer, Ph.D., Co-Chair; Stephanie James Wilson, Executive Director; Juandamarie Gikandi; Candice Pryor Brown
Unit Overviews | Colin A. Palmer, Ph.D., Princeton University and N.J. Amistad Commission
Amistad Commission Lesson Writers | Stephanie James Wilson; Juandamarie Gikandi; Richlyn Goddard; Rosemarie Harris; Candace Pryor Brown; Jared Wexler; Catherine Wishart
Design and Development | CICERO SystemsTM
Content Writers | Kevin T. Brady, Ph.D.; Michael Johnson; Haley McCay; Jennifer Howard; Laureen Hungo; Stephen Klugewicz, Ph.D.
Learn more about our staff, click on a staff image to read biography.
Stephanie James Wilson
Learn more about our members, click on a staff image to read biography.
Robert A. Altenkirch
Honorable Sandra Cunningham
Lillie Johnson Edwards
Joyce Wilson Harley, Esq.
James E. Harris
Miriam E. Martin
Julane W. Miller-Armbrister
Colin A. Palmer
William D. Payne
Honorable Scott T. Rumana
Cleopatra G. Tucker
The New Jersey Amistad Commission, within the New Jersey Department of State, was established by the Amistad Bill (A1301), which was introduced by Assemblyman William D. Payne, and became law in 2002. This legislated mandate requires that all New Jersey schools incorporate African-American history into their Social Studies curriculum. This legislation also created the Amistad Commission, a 23-member body charged with ensuring that African Americans' contributions and experiences are historically infused and adequately taught in ALL of the state's classrooms.
What We Do
The New Jersey Amistad Commission has been diligently striving to fulfill the directives of the Amistad legislation. This state-level Commission surveys, designs, and promotes the implementation of public educational awareness programs in New Jersey concerned with the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in our country, and the contributions of African Americans in building our country.
The mandate requires that all New Jersey schools incorporate African-American history into their Social Studies curriculum, ensuring that African-Americans’ history, contributions, and experiences are intrinsically taught in the state’s classrooms on a daily basis and fully infused within classroom lessons, assessment tools, primary and secondary sources, and presentations.
The primary focus of the Amistad staff is the continued development of the Amistad curriculum, as well as the dissemination of curriculum materials to every school in the state. Within this curriculum the Commission has formulated a course of action that has revised Social Studies instruction throughout the state’s 619 school districts. According to the auspices of the legislation, we will not design a separate African-American Studies course for New Jersey’s school districts, but will make sure that African-American content is fully infused into all levels of Social Studies and the Humanities.
COPYRIGHT © 2017. All rights reserved.