African-American History Commission Act, 400 Years of
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The federal law establishing a national commission charged with commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619, and other purposes.
The 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, referred to as the Act or the 400YAAHCA, is the federal policy responsible for the establishment of the 400 Years of African-American History Commission and other purposes. The primary duty of the Commission is to lead and manage the national 400-year commemoration of the 1619 arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. Overall, there are six duties that the Commission is responsible for fulfilling as indicated in Section 3(c), the core of the Act. These duties focus on coordinating and facilitating programs, research, and publication activities appropriate for the remembrance. The scope of the activities is the creation of an enduring commemoration that benefits the public’s understanding, appreciation, and recognition of the important contributions made by this group and their descendants to the United States of America (USA). Further, the commemoration is to acknowledge the significant impact on these persons and the nation during this 400-year period as a result of enslavement policies and subsequent laws perpetuating racial discrimination.
This entry addresses four areas. Initially, prior enslavement legislation is reviewed. Secondly, the passage of the Act is presented. Thirdly, the Act is highlighted. And fourthly, the Act as a civil rights victory is discussed.
Prior Key Legislation Regarding Enslavement in the USA
The 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act of 2018 Act marks a major milestone for the USA. At the heart of this Act is the nation’s past involvement in the economy of human trafficking or enslavement through the TransAtlantic Triangular Trade or Middle Passage. No other issue has been more contentious in the nation’s history. The enormity of this matter was so great that by May 1836, the House of Representatives passed a resolution known as the “Gag Rule.” This rule prevented any enslavement legislation from being considered. The goal was to block anti-enslavement petitions from being heard by having them tabled or postponed. This rule was rescinded in 1844. Ending it cleared the way for the eventual passage of the landmark 1863 Emancipation Proclamation Act that eventually freed all enslaved persons after the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. The repeal of the rule also enabled the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, respectively, outlawing race-based enslavement, recognizing the citizenship of the formerly enslaved Africans and African Americans, and granting them voting rights.
Notwithstanding these laws, there was no cohesive policy on how the nation and states would provide for the successful economic and social transition for the emancipated citizens. At that time in history, truth commissions did not exist for nations ending enslavement like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission convened by South Africa in the aftermath of its dismantling of racial apartheid in 1994. Segmented efforts included the revoked Special Field Orders No. 15 of General William T. Sherman that was to allot 40 acres of land per household for emancipated black families in parts of Georgia and South Carolina for a total of 400,000 acres of confiscated land in the former confederate territory (i.e., commonly referred to as “The 40 Acres and a Mule” policy); the Freedman’s Bureau that was created by Congress in 1865 and reauthorized through 1877 to assist emancipated blacks and poor whites in adjusting to the changed economy; and reconstruction policy that was to rebuild the nation after the war.
Further, without a national healing and reconciliation process to deal with the moral and ethical issues stemming from the human rights abuses against Africans and African Americans that facilitated unlawful wealth confiscation, the humanity of blacks was never acknowledged. Consequently, blacks, especially the men, became subjected to criminal enslavement (i.e., prison industrial complex or mass incarceration). According to the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude is legal in the USA and its jurisdictions as a punishment for a crime conviction. With this understanding, states implemented Black Codes beginning in 1865 that grew into Jim Crow policies of segregation. Federally, segregation was outlawed nearly 100 years later with the historic passage of policies including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. However, persisting incongruent criminal justice policies continue the proliferation of criminal enslavement for African Americans and other socially marginalized groups.
In 1989, Congressman John Conyers (Dem-MI-13) began introducing legislation that focused on creating a type of truth commission that would study the impact of enslavement and its aftermath. This legislative agenda has faced an “invisible gag rule” over a nearly 30-year period. In January 2017 at age 87, Congressman Conyers reintroduced for his final time, H.R. 40, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. He retired in December. Two key aspects of H.R. 40, a national apology and reparations, have been particularly controversial. To date, no US President has issued a national apology for the USA’s participation in the enslavement economy and operation of a racially segregated society. In June 1997, President Bill Clinton called for a new national dialogue on race and considered apologizing. However, he was opposed to reparations. In 2008, the House issued H. Res. 194 that apologized for enslavement and its aftermath of racial segregation as a step forward toward racial reconciliation. In 2009, the Senate issued concurrent resolution S.Con.Res.26. This legislation was another apology for the enslavement of and racial segregation against African Americans. It was highly criticized for containing a key provision prohibiting the resolution from being used as a cause for future reparations claims. The 400YAAHCA builds on these two resolutions and can serve as a preliminary step toward an impact study based on its key provision for “acknowledging the impact” of enslavement and racial segregation. If passed, Congressman Conyers’ legislation could have provided the impact study that would have been ready for the commemoration.
Passage of the Act
H.R. 1242 – 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump on January 8, 2018, during the 115th Congress (2017–2018). Congressional sponsors for the Act introduced the legislation in February 2017. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced S. 392 on February 15, 2017. His bill had three cosponsors. Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA-3) introduced H.R. 1242 on February 28, 2017. His bill had 53 cosponsors.
The initial legislation did not pass that was introduced by these congressional leaders in 2016 during the 114th Congress (2015–2016) under the second term of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first president of African descent. A major press conference was held during Black History Month on February 11, 2016, announcing the introduction of congressional bills H.R. 4539 sponsored by Rep. Scott and S. 2548 sponsored by Sen. Kaine. Participants at the press conference included Virginia Senators Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D), Virginia Representatives Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-3) and Don Beyer (D-8), Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-1), Congressional Black Caucus Chair, and Hilary Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy. There were six Senate cosponsors and 65 House cosponsors for this initial legislation. H.R. 4539 passed on July 5, 2016. S. 2548 stalled after being placed on the legislative calendar on September 13, 2016.
There were two prior federal policies establishing commissions to commemorate anniversary periods in the USA ranging from 400 years to 450 years. Congressional and civil rights leaders recognized the historical significance of these policies and included elements from these laws in creating the legislation for the 400YAAHCA. The Jamestown 400th Commemoration Commission Act of 2000 or Public Law No: 106–565 was enacted by President Bill Clinton on December 23, 2000. This Commission was created to lead the 2007 national commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, also known as, Public Law No: 111-11. Under Subtitle E: Advisory Commissions (Sec. 7404), the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Commission was established to plan and implement 2015 national activities recognizing the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida. Both policies included provisions authorizing appropriations to carry out the commemorations.
The Act is officially titled, To establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission, and for other purposes. It contains nine sections pertaining to following: the short title, definitions, establishment, commission meetings, commission powers, commission personnel matters, plans and reports, termination, and expenditures. The Act prescribes that there are to be 15 members of the Commission based upon selective criteria. The Commission is authorized to seek donated funds for expenditures because there are no authorized appropriations for this national commemoration. By July 1, 2020, the termination date for the Commission, it is to have submitted its final report that summarizes the commemoration activities, budget, and findings and recommendations.
SEC. 3. ESTABLISHMENT.(c) Duties. —The Commission shall—
- (1)plan, develop, and carry out programs and activities throughout the United States—
appropriate for the commemoration;
to recognize and highlight the resilience and contributions of African-Americans since 1619;
to acknowledge the impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination had on the United States; and
- (D)to educate the public about—
the arrival of Africans in the United States; and
the contributions of African-Americans to the United States;
- (2)encourage civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, economic, and other organizations throughout the United States to organize and participate in anniversary activities to expand understanding and appreciation of—
the significance of the arrival of Africans in the United States; and.
the contributions of African-Americans to the United States;
provide technical assistance to States, localities, and nonprofit organizations to further the commemoration;
- (4)coordinate and facilitate for the public scholarly research on, publication about, and interpretation of—
the arrival of Africans in the United States; and
the contributions of African-Americans to the United States;
ensure that the commemoration provides a lasting legacy and long-term public benefit by assisting in the development of appropriate programs; and
help ensure that the observances of the commemoration are inclusive and appropriately recognize the experiences and heritage of all individuals present at the arrival of Africans in the United States.
The Act as a Civil Rights Victory
Specifically, Sec. 3(c)(1)(C) of the Act acknowledges that the nation’s policies of enslavement and racial discrimination have impacted African Americans. Retrospective analysis shows that the crux of the civil rights struggle has been fighting to overcome policies of racial animus that have unfairly and unjustly marginalized African Americans and others too. With this Act, the federal government has taken another step toward moral and ethical responsibility for its actions during this 400-year period. That acknowledgment presents a sea change moving forward. According to Sen. Kaine (personal communication, May 3, 2018),
The commission established by the Act will be charged with the important task of planning, developing and implementing a series of programs and activities throughout 2019 that fully tell the story of African Americans, their contributions to the fabric of our nation, and their resilience over the last 400 years. We cannot hope to see greater levels of social equity today, without confronting the harsh truths of our past, and the history of Virginia and our nation cannot be fully understood or appreciated without learning about every aspect of the African-American experience. (personal communication, May 14, 2018)
The commemorative activities planned by the Commission can provide opportunities for additional social healing and racial reconciliation. The Act has the potential to help further address the deeply rooted trauma of racism in the nation’s history. While not a truth commission, the Commission’s role is still morally uplifting. The implementation of a national commemoration that acknowledges the truth about the impact of America’s forms of racial oppression against African Americans is critically important for the nation’s continued quest to uphold its founding principles for all of its citizens. H. Shelton expresses (personal communication, May 11, 2018),
It is impossible to understand the American experience without understanding the African American experience from 1619 to today. We cannot imagine the United States without the contributions of African Americans, and our 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act of 2018 will help us tell that story in both its pain and beauty. As much as we would like history to always move in a positive direction, instead we have often seen a series of advances and retractions. From Dred Scott to the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, and the imperfect laws we have today, we have to study the African American experience to improve and grow as a nation. This road toward equality had pain, but it also had great beauty: From Barbara Johns' walk-out of Moton High School leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, to Virginia becoming the first state to elect an African American governor, the grandson of a slave. The commission will help us tell that story and understand how far we’ve come as well as how far we still have to go.
On July 4, 1776, the nation declared its freedom from Great Britain, which included the acknowledgment that there are universal Truths that all people are created equal and given Rights by their God that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, Africans and African Americans of 1619 descent were excluded by the Declaration of Independence, becoming representative of other groups excluded too. It would not be until 1965 when a strategic “plan of action” was proposed to guide the nation in responding to the generational consequences of exclusionary and unequal citizenship for African Americans. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary for the Department of Labor, wrote the, Report on the Negro Family: A Call to Action. The report forthrightly acknowledged key issues relating to the ongoing battle for civil liberties and human rights for African Americans that were the direct result of the unaddressed consequences of the nation’s enslavement past. In the opening for Chapter 3, “The Root of the Problem,” he wrote the following,
The commission established by this legislation will play a crucial role in recognizing, understanding, and celebrating the resilience and contributions of African Americans to the history of our nation. It is fitting and proper that in this era of questions about the treatment of African Americans by officers of the state, as well as an ever-growing influence in the daily lives of all Americans by people of African descent, that this commission be established now. The goal of this committee should be to help all Americans to better understand, and hopefully take steps to mitigate rather than extend, the ongoing negative effects of the institution of slavery four hundred years after it first came to the shores of our nation.
Further, Moynihan concluded that the need for a national plan was based upon the belief that, “Three centuries of injustice have brought about deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American” (1965). Presently, the Act has the potential to engender justice for the four centuries of social inequity. It lends itself toward greater ethical accountability for upholding the integrity of the USA’s founding principles.
The most perplexing question about American slavery, which has never been altogether explained, and which indeed most Americans hardly know exists, has been stated by Nathan Glazer as follows: “Why was American slavery the most awful the world has ever known?” The only thing that can be said with certainty is that this is true: it was.
The 400YAAHCA of 2018 is the law authorizing a national commission to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619, and other purposes. There are six key duties of the Commission. The commemoration will highlight the resilience and contributions of African Americans in light of their intense struggle for freedom, liberty, and justice since 1619. While a commemorative policy, the Act is a civil rights victory because it moves the nation from “apologizing” to “acknowledging the impact” of enslavement and racial discrimination caused to this group. The commemoration is preparation to help the nation begin a season of social and economic restoration for addressing the impact.
… a period of healing and restoration beginning in 2019 with consecration, commemoration, and celebration … of the 400-year journey for African Americans that has served as, … ‘a humanitarian bridge for many cultures to be honored for their diversity, richness, and sanctity within a shared future of purpose, prosperity, and peace for all’…
- Adams-Cooper V (2016) The artesian renaissance. Author, Albany, GAGoogle Scholar
- Frederickson HG (2005) The state of social equity in American public administration. Natl Civ Rev 94(4):31–38. Retrieved from https://oied.ncsu.edu/selc/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The-State-of-Social-Equity-in-American-Public-Administration.pdf
- Moynihan DP (1965) The Negro family: the case for national action. U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm