Some in New Jersey say black history lacking in schools
Nearly four years after New Jersey passed a state law mandating its schools teach black history, compliance is spotty and the lawmaker who was behind the legislation is frustrated. Even as Black History Month briefly draws attention to African-American heritage, New Jersey's effort shows how hard it can be to move from an idea to change in the classroom.
"We won't have to do February if in fact we teach this in the regular curriculum," said Payne.
New Jersey's 2002 law created an Amistad Commission whose members write lesson plans, organize educational events and train teachers _ all focused on black history. The law says each school board "shall incorporate" black history at all grade levels. Two other states, New York and Illinois, have since passed similar laws and several others are either considering them or have passed statutes that encourage, but do not require, teachers to address black history.
New Jersey's commission gets its name from a Spanish ship that was carrying kidnapped Africans into slavery in 1839 when the captives seized the boat. They were recaptured and imprisoned, but eventually won their freedom in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Even though Steven Spielberg released a movie about the incident in 1997, it's often not included in history books _ along with many other key events in black history, said Karen Jackson-Weaver, who was hired last year as the Amistad Commission's first executive director.
Jackson-Weaver now is surveying New Jersey's 593 districts on their compliance with the law. "Just in case you didn't know," she told districts in a letter, "we do have an Amistad law on the books and it's necessary to have African-American history in the curriculum."
Some educators don't know the law exists. Among those that do, many teachers are not well-versed in black history and don't know where to find teaching materials.
With just two full-time staffers, the Amistad Commission is struggling to help. The 19 volunteer commissioners are working to get lesson plans online, and will likely end up hiring an historian to write a textbook that adequately meshes black history with the rest of American history, Jackson-Weaver said.
Last week, New Jersey's education commissioner sent another reminder letter to school districts to urge educators to implement the law.
"A law that isn't enforced is like no law at all," said Jerome Carr, a parent who pressed officials in Montgomery Township schools, about 30 miles north of Trenton, for two years to comply with Amistad. School officials ignored him, Carr said, and one board member questioned the need for a black history class.
Last month, the board approved a new multicultural elective called "Diversity in America," but Carr reviewed the class outline and said it "continues to give short shrift to our history." Jane T. Plenge, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Montgomery Township, said the district has been responsive to parents' concerns and is constantly updating its social studies lessons.
Meanwhile, other New Jersey educators said their students have appreciated learning more about black history.
"When children begin to understand who they are, when they begin to see that they are part of history," said Lauren Cooper, a middle school reading teacher at Belleville Middle School near Newark. "You can see them walking around school walking a little taller."
Making sure youth learn all of American history is one reason lawmakers mandate lesson plans _ and it's nothing new. For decades, ethnic groups have pushed state lawmakers to require including their stories in class. Schools in Arizona, Alaska and New Mexico must teach about American Indians, and a Rhode Island law outlines lessons on the Irish potato famine.
But Payne knows it's hard putting the laws into action. This year, he plans to introduce legislation aiming at strengthening New Jersey's statute: requiring all new teachers get black history training, standardize textbook purchasing and make students pass a social studies exam before graduating. He also has plans to hire more commission staff.
"I want to make sure that when Bill Payne is gone, Amistad will keep going," he said.
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John J Capozucca - 2/10/2006
Slavery is the stain on America's soul and it's heinousness can never be defended, however, I hope Black history studies include politically incorrect history such as:
American Heritage, vol 441, "Selling Poor Steven," which shows that 3,775 free blacks owned 12,740 black slaves. This story also purports that the first slave owner in Virginia, Anthony Johnson, was a black man. Frighteningly, the story also outlines how free black women "owned" their husbands, free blacks sold their children into slavery, and absent free black slave owners "leased" their slaves to plantation owners.
There's also Black historian Carter G. Woodson's Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, which is self-explanatory.
Black history in the US is not simply about racism.