Asbury Park Press

1619: Shore Schools Push To Tell A More Accurate Story Of The Legacy Of Slavery

Asbury Park Press — August 26, 2019

By Michael L. Diamond

As the nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship to arrive in America, some Shore educators are planning to reshape their curriculum to make the event more than just a historical footnote.

The newfound focus on 1619 will give students more insight not only into slavery, but also a legacy that continues to leave its mark on the economy, housing, health care and more.

"I think it is essential to tell an accurate story," Asbury Park schools' Superintendent Sancha K. Gray said. "It's not just Black history; it's America's history. To that end, the Asbury Park School District will incorporate these (lessons) into our future curriculum."

The first enslaved Africans on record arrived at a Virginia colony 400 years ago this month, creating a system of slavery that technically lasted until the Civil War, but remains a part of America even today.

The year 1619 hasn't gotten the mythological treatment of, say, 1492, 1776 or 1941, but its fingerprints have proven to be nearly impossible to wipe away.

Slavery continues to affect every part of American society, said Walter Greason, a professor who specializes in economic history at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.

"Most Americans never learned any of this information," he said. "As a result racism became increasingly hidden and deeply embedded in every way we relate to each other as people."

The impact of 1619 and the institution of slavery has been documented this month by the New York Times and USA TODAY.

The system of free labor helped white Americans build wealth, but left the workers themselves falling short generation after generation in their bid to make good on America's promise of equality.

The promise was laid out in the Declaration of Independence by founding fathers who were slave owners.

But 400 years later:

"I think it's important for the state to look at these issues holistically in a comprehensive way and in a meaningful way to look at policy solutions," said Renee Wolf Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.

The group released a study two years ago called "The Uncomfortable Truth: Racism, Injustice and Poverty in New Jersey. The 131-page report proposed 100 policy recommendations to address structural inequality.

"There needs to be a concerted effort, an intentional effort," she said. "Otherwise people will still be suffering from the effects of slavery."

The spotlight on 1619 has sparked backlash as well. A writer for The Federalist said slavery had actually been in America years earlier, and the project was "mostly about convincing Americans that 'America' and 'slavery' are essentially synonyms.

But advocates say African Americans continue to face an uphill climb, encountering centuries-old inequities.

A proposed merger between Fair Lawn-based Columbia Bank and Midland Park-based Atlantic Stewardship Bank has come under fire from a consumer group.

New Jersey Citizen Action filed a protest with the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, saying neither bank met its legal obligations to meet the credit needs of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

For example, it said Atlantic Stewardship between 2015 and 2017 didn't make any home purchase loans in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Columbia's denial rates for African American and Latino applicants exceeded the market average.

"In this case it's a return to what we were seeing years and years ago in terms of redlining," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, referring to the practice of financial institutions that wouldn't make loans in under-served neighborhoods.

Officials from the two banks didn't respond to requests for comment.

Not that the nation hasn't made any strides. The life expectancy gap between blacks and whites narrowed from nearly six years in 1999 to 3.6 years in 2013 thanks in part to a decline in death rates among African Americans from HIV, heart disease and cancer, according to the CDC.

But progress in other areas has stalled. New Jersey's home ownership rate among black residents has scarcely budged since 1990, Census figures show.

Asbury Park schools aren't alone in rethinking its curriculum. Long Branch Public Schools' humanities department also is in the planning stage.

Educators hope that teaching the story of 1619 will give students a new perspective, recognizing obstacles that are deeply rooted.

"Once everyone sees this information, we have new ways to understand each other," Monmouth University's Greason said. "We can communicate more clearly and abandon the hateful language that has empowered white nationalists throughout the country's history. This...is a chance at a new beginning for democracy in the 21st century."


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