The 400 Years of African American History Act, legislation aiming to celebrate the contributions and influence of Africans and African-Americans in the United States since 1619, was introduced in Washington, D.C., Thursday.
If passed, a commission would be established to plan programs and activities recognizing “the arrival and influence of Africans in America” across the country throughout 2019 as well as to acknowledge the “painful impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination have had on our nation’s history,” according to a press release.
The act was introduced by U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va), Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va)., G. K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.
The legislation is met with support by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
In past years, Congress has passed and funded federal commissions recognizing the 400th and 450th anniversaries of the settlement of Jamestown and the founding of St. Augustine, Fla. respectively. Kaine said he believes if English and Hispanic roots can be honored, African-American roots should be honored as well.
“If English lives matter, if Latino lives matter, then African American lives matter, and they mattered every day since the landing” of the first Africans in America, Kaine said at a press conference Thursday. “The United States of America without the contributions and influences of African Americans… would be unrecognizable and much the poorer.”
Asst. Prof. Andrew W. Kahrl, who teaches African-American studies and history, said he agrees with the undeniably critical role Africans played in shaping the United States into what is is today.
“One of the things that I always stress in my classes… is that African-American history is American history,” Kahrl said. “This is not something that is some sort of an addendum or something that is separate and apart from what we traditionally think of as so called ‘American history.’”
The new federal commission is not only focused on honoring the past but also creating a brighter future for America and all its citizens, Warner said.
“It’s a story that we need to continue to talk about, study and frankly get better at,” Warner said at the press conference. “And I can't think of a better opportunity than creating a federal national commission that would focus from both the [historical perspective], but equally important, looking forward about how we create a more perfect union that includes all Americans.”