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6/17/2014 Assembly OKs bill to develop curriculum for teaching African-American history in public schools
STATE HOUSE – With final passage today in the House, legislation sponsored by Rep. Joseph S. Almeida and Sen. Harold M. Metts to create the 1696 Historical Commission to develop an African-American history curriculum for Rhode Island schools is now headed to the governor.

Under the legislation (2014-H 7490A, 2014-S 2418A), the 1696 Historical Commission would be created to develop a comprehensive African-American history curriculum for Rhode Island public schools from kindergarten through grade 12. The commission’s name recognizes the first documented group of enslaved Africans to arrive in Rhode Island, who landed aboard the brig Seaflower in Newport in 1696.

“Black history isn’t just something to think about for a month in February. African-Americans are Americans, and our struggles and contributions are an important part of American history. Our goal in creating this commission is to make sure teachers have the tools they need to teach a well-rounded, inclusive view of the people and events – both the honorable ones and the shameful chapters – that brought our country and our state to where it is today. While we can’t undo the injustices of the past, teaching our children honest lessons about them will help the adults of tomorrow treat each other with respect and understanding,” said Representative Almeida (D-Dist. 12, Providence).

 “The stories of African-Americans in Rhode Island are an important, interwoven part of our state and our country’s history, and they should be taught as such to our students,” said Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “Children need to know Rhode Island history to better appreciate the contributions made by African-Americans. They should learn that Rhode Island shipping merchants were, unfortunately, huge participants in the slave trade, even after slavery was illegal here. They should learn about Christiana Bannister and the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which fought in the Revolutionary War as the first black U.S. military regiment. These are things all children should be taught, but it’s particularly important that African-American students see that the history of this state isn’t just about English settlers or slavery – it’s about their ancestors overcoming great suffering and injustice. It’s about understanding that they had a history before the middle passage, with kings, universities and a rich culture. With this knowledge, they will be encouraged to be good students and not chastised by peers for being smart and ‘acting white.’ This history will negate decades of stereotypes on all sides. ”

The 15-member commission would include the secretary of state, the education commissioner, the executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission or their designees, and 12 members of the public appointed by the House speaker, the Senate president and the governor. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commissions and Rhode Island Department of Education would provide support staff to the commission, under the bill. 

The commission would be charged with creating a curriculum that includes a history of people of African heritage, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America and Rhode Island, the enslavement experience in America and Rhode Island, abolition and the contributions of Africans to America and Rhode Island.

The group would consult with the Department of Education to develop guidelines, and would make recommendations on facilitating the inclusion of these elements of history in teaching in Rhode Island public schools. The legislation requires the commission to prepare its findings and recommendations by January 2015, and sets a goal of funding and implementing the curriculum for the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

“Rhode Island has an opportunity to share the rich, vibrant history of fellow Rhode Islanders of African heritage with the entire state by incorporating the study of African-American history into the public school curriculum in all Rhode Island elementary and secondary schools. This inclusion will become a much-needed opportunity to instill knowledge and self-worth in all of our Rhode Island youth, particularly those of African heritage,” said Keith Stokes, who helped to draft the bill. Stokes is a member and leader of many regional and national historic preservation boards and is a frequent national, state and local lecturer on, among other topics, historic preservation and interpretation with expertise in early African- and Jewish-American history.

Said Joyce L. Stevos, president of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, “As one of the incorporators of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society whose mission is to preserve and tell the story of blacks in Rhode Island, I heartily endorse this legislation. Our youth must realize that African-Americans are an integral part of the history of our state and have made many contributions to improve life in Rhode Island and the nation.”

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923