RI House passes African-American history education bill, but not without debate

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. House of Representatives passed legislation on Tuesday that would incorporate African Heritage History Education in all elementary and secondary schools across Rhode Island.

The goal of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, is for students to become educated about the topic “in order to have a more comprehensive understanding of the crucial role that Rhode Island played in the slave trade throughout the history of our nation, as well as the many contributions African Americans have made to our society.”

“Hopefully, our students and adults will use this knowledge to create a better society, a society that actually values the life and dignity of every Rhode Islander and beyond, regardless of our differences,” Williams said in part in a statement released Tuesday night.

Before the whole of the bill was passed unanimously, some lawmakers voiced concerns.

While Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, said she felt teaching African-American history is important, she tried to put forth an amendment in the bill that would include requiring education about dozens of other ethnicities.

“I think by focusing on only one nationality or one ethnicity, that we are missing an opportunity,” Morgan said.

“We’re at a time in our country, in our state, where there’s a lot of division. We see hate crimes being committed on our streets and sidewalks,” she added. “And I think it’s important for us as Rhode Islanders to have our children learn about all the nationalities who have come to Rhode Island, because they have added and contributed to this wonderful, vibrant culture that we have in Rhode Island.”

Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, also the House Majority Floor Manager, stepped in to say the amendment was not germane to the bill.

“This amendment has added almost every ethnic group that is found on the planet,” he said. “This bill is about African-American history, not the history of the globe.”

“What, are we afraid to talk about all the other nationalities that make up Rhode Island and their contributions?” Morgan asked House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi.

Shekarchi said the ruling of the parliamentarian was that Morgan’s amendment should have been addressed in committee, which is why it was not germane to the House floor.

Additionally, some lawmakers took issue with the way “Black Lives Matter” was written as copy in the bill.

By capitalizing “Black Lives Matter,” House Minority Leader Blake Filippi said the bill would include an organization that “has largely contributed to one party,” democrats, so it would not be appropriate to keep that in the state’s general laws.

Filippi went on to say he would be fine if “black lives matter” was not capitalized, because “black lives do matter,” he added.

Williams later clarified on the House floor the bill was not intended to promote any group and stated she also does not belong to Black Lives Matter.

The legislation calls for every school district to include in its curriculum a unit of instruction on African Heritage and History utilizing, but not be limited to, the materials collected and disseminated by the R.I. Department of Education, beginning in the 2022-23 school year. 

The bill also does not require school districts to require African Heritage History instruction every year, but rather it is “utilized during appropriate times in the elementary and secondary school curricula, as determined by the local authority.”

The bill also aims to have all students be instructed on African Heritage and History materials before they graduate high school.

The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society is leading the curriculum design, but also working with Rhode Island College and the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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