HAMPTON—Governor Ralph Northam today signed Executive Order Thirty-Nine, which establishes the Commission on African American History Education. The Commission is charged with reviewing Virginia’s history standards, and the instructional practices, content, and resources currently used to teach African American history in the Commonwealth. Governor Northam made the announcement speaking at the 2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing, a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America at Point Comfort in 1619.
“The full history of Virginia is complex, contradictory, and often untold—and we must do a better job of making sure that every Virginia graduate enters adult life with an accurate and thorough understanding of our past, and the pivotal role that African Americans have played in building and perfecting our Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “The important work of this Commission will help ensure that Virginia’s standards of learning are inclusive of African American history and allow students to engage deeply, drawing connections between historic racial inequities and their continuous influence on our communities today.”
The Executive Order tasks the Commission with issuing a report no later than July 1, 2020, with recommendations for improving the student experience, including but not limited to:
The Commonwealth first established its history and social science standards of learning in 1995. Since that time, the standards have been routinely updated based on feedback from practitioners, historians, and stakeholders. The work of the Commission will help inform the next history and social science standards review the state will undertake.
Additionally, the Virginia Department of Education will work with Virtual Virginia, WHRO Public Media, and committees of history and social science public school educators, university historians, and college professors to develop a new African American history course for high school students. Together, they will establish objectives and competencies to provide a foundation of knowledge and understanding of African American history.
This new elective will be available to all students in the Commonwealth virtually beginning in the fall of 2020. Its component digital parts will be accessible resources for students in numerous other history courses.
The Governor has appointed the following individuals to serve on the Commission:
The full text of Executive Order Thirty-Nine can be found here.
Additional information about the Commission and its meetings will be available online here.
Governor Northam’s full remarks at the 2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing, as prepared for delivery, are below.
What a beautiful setting this is. I thank you for the privilege of speaking to you at Fort Monroe today. As a former member and vice-chairman of the Fort Monroe Authority, it’s always a pleasure to be here at this site.
Thank you all for being here today to commemorate 400 years of American history.
For those of you from out of state, welcome to Virginia.
It’s great to be here today with former governors, now Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and former governors McDonnell and Baliles. I also want to recognize Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring, Congressman Bobby Scott, Congresswoman Elaine Luria, House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, members of our legislative black caucus, and other elected officials.
I would like to thank everyone who has worked hard to make this commemoration a reality—Fort Monroe Authority director Glenn Oder, Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees Chairman Jim Moran, members of the Fort Monroe Authority board, Fort Monroe National Monument Superintendent Terry Brown, the National Park Service, Kathy Spangler, Nancy Rodrigues, and the team from American Evolution. I’d also like to thank the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission for all the hard work they have done around these events in their home city.
We are here today for a commemoration, and a reckoning.
Today is a time to reckon with the fact that four hundred years ago, enslaved Africans arrived for the first time on Virginia shores. Like you and me, they had lives and families—lives and families they would never see again.
Just up the river in Jamestown, a few weeks earlier, white landowning men had come together to establish a system of representative government.
But that system did not represent all of the people who arrived here at Old Point Comfort, people whose skin looked different than mine.
That government did not represent them during 246 years of slavery. It did not represent them through nearly 100 years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow terror and discrimination. And in many ways, it struggles to represent them today.
That is the truth, and that is what we must reckon with as we move forward. How do we tell the full and true story of our past 400 years?
How do we do so with honor and dignity for people whose honor and dignity were taken away from them? Who should tell that story? And how do we learn from those lessons as we move forward?
Ida B. Wells wrote that “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
If we are going to begin to truly right the wrongs of our four centuries of history, if we are going to turn the light of truth upon them, we have to start with ourselves.
Over the past several months, as I have met with people around the state and listened to their views on the disparities and inequities that still exist today, I have had to confront some painful truths.
Among those truths was my own incomplete understanding regarding race and equity.
I have learned a great deal from those discussions, and I have more to learn. But I also learned that the more I know, the more I can do.
For too long, the burden has been on individuals and communities of color to lead these discussions. But if more of us have these hard conversations, and truly listen and learn from them, we’ll be better able to shine that light of truth. Because the eyes can’t see what the mind doesn’t know.
We can start those conversations at places like this, Fort Monroe, the ground where the first enslaved Africans landed.
This is also the same ground where the end of slavery began. It was here where enslaved people sought refuge, and were granted it, a decision that eventually led to emancipation.
General Butler’s contraband decision has been hailed by Ed Ayers—a nationally known historian of the American South, and a member of the Fort Monroe Authority—as “the greatest moment in American history.”
Virginia is the place where enslaved Africans first landed and where American representative democracy was born.
Virginia is the place where emancipation began and the Confederate capitol was located.
Virginia is the place where schools were closed under Massive Resistance, rather than desegregate and allow black children to attend, and it is the state that elected the nation’s first African American governor.
Virginia is a place of contradictions and complexity. We take a step forward and, often, a step back.
And we have to acknowledge that. We have to teach that complexity to our children, and often to our adults. We are a state that for too long has told a false story of ourselves.
The story we tell is insufficient and inadequate, especially when it comes to black history.
We must remember that black history IS American history.
That’s why earlier today, I signed an executive directive to establish a Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth.
This Commission will review our educational standards, instructional practices, content, and resources currently used to teach African American history in the Commonwealth. We want to make sure all students develop a full and comprehensive understanding of the African-American voices that contribute to our story.
But that is not the only thing we can do.
When we look back at events of 1619, or 1861, or 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was signed, we often look at them as history—frozen in time or locked in a book, relics of the past.
We memorize dates, but not connections. We don’t teach the themes that appear in our history over and over again.
We often fail to draw the connecting lines from those past events to our present day.
But to move forward, that is what we must do.
We know that racism and discrimination aren’t locked in the past. They weren’t solved with the Civil Rights Act. They didn’t disappear—they evolved.
They’re still with us, in the disparities we see in educational attainment and school suspension rates, in maternal and neonatal mortality for black and white mothers, in our courts and prisons, and in our business practices.
Through 400 years of American history, starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, Massive Resistance, and now mass incarceration, black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms.
The legacy of racism continues not just in isolated incidents, but as part of a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives, whether we know it or not. And if we’re serious about righting the wrong that began here at this place, we need to do more than talk. We need to take action.
The Commission I mentioned earlier is just one action. My administration is taking bold steps to right historical inequities in education, in our health system, and in access to business opportunities.
We established a commission to examine racial inequities in Virginia law.
We have set a goal to eliminate racial disparities in maternal and neonatal mortality by 2025.
I signed an executive order to advance equity for our small women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses, including a statewide disparity study, and we are working to reduce evictions.
A few weeks ago, I was here at Fort Monroe to announce the removal of letters from the arch that once celebrated the president of the Confederacy.
Jefferson Davis was charged with treason and was imprisoned here at Fort Monroe, a traitor to his country. And I believe it is no coincidence that in the same year that Virginia enacted Massive Resistance as official state policy, that arch went up in his honor.
To have a monument glorifying a person who worked to maintain slavery, on the same site on which enslaved Africans both first arrived here and were later freed, is not just inappropriate, it is offensive, and it is wrong. Removing that monument is one way we can act to better tell the true story here in Virginia.
And I am pleased and proud to announce today another important step in how we represent the full and true story of our Commonwealth.
Last year, I requested and the General Assembly agreed to allocate $500,000 toward the first African Landing Memorial Art Project here at Fort Monroe.
Since that time, the Fort Monroe Authority and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, in partnership with the National Park Service, the Fort Monroe Foundation, and Project 1619, led a national search for an artist who could create this memorial art project at Old Point Comfort.
The art project will be dedicated to the first landing of African people here on these shores. Importantly, the artist will engage with the public to ensure that the community has the chance to express their opinion on what this memorial project means to them, and what experiences should be included in the design.
I’m delighted that the artist for the Fort Monroe African Landing Memorial Art Project is here with us today. Mr. Brian Owens, would you please stand?
I look forward to seeing Mr. Owens’ project and how it will contribute to this site and the telling of this important American story.
On this very day last year, I was at the Tucker family cemetery, a cemetery named after the first documented child of African descent born in English-speaking North America.
William Tucker’s parents, Anthony and Isabell, were among those who were brought here to Old Point Comfort in 1619.
Like too many African-American cemeteries, the Tucker family cemetery had fallen victim to neglect.
But it is also a testament to revival and restoration. Family members and interested groups are working to restore that cemetery, and I want to recognize Delegate Delores McQuinn for her work on this issue.
In that restoration work, and in the events here this weekend, I see steps forward. I see us working to acknowledge the wrongs and the evils done in the past—and in the present.
Because, while we cannot change the past, we can use it and learn from it. When we know more, we can do more.
I know more, and as your governor, I will do more.
And as we reckon with the painful legacy of Virginia’s racist past, and acknowledge that it continues to shape our present, we can and must continue to act to improve the future. We must work to tell our full and true story.
It is our job—all of us that make up this diverse society—to ensure that when the next generation looks back—a generation that is hopefully more inclusive than we have been—they see a more accurate narrative, one that tells the truth, and includes everyone.
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