Virginia lawmakers gathered Thursday morning to make their case for a federal commission on African-American history, pointing out Congress has supported similar bodies to study English and Hispanic history.
"Black lives matter," said Rep. Don Beyer Jr., D-Va. "The black lives of the last 400 years matter.” Beyer joined fellow Virginia Democrats Rep. Robert C. Scott and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in supporting legislation to establish a commission to organize programs in 2019 that would commemorate the history of African-Americans in the U.S., timed with the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619.
Similar commissions were established to honor the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement in Jamestown, Va., and the 450th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, Fla.
"Well, if English lives matter, if Latino lives matter, then African-American lives matter, and they matter every day since the landing of those 20 and odd African Americans,” Kaine said. "The United States of America without the contributions and influences of African Americans, beginning with that tragic landing at Point Comfort, America would be unrecognizable and much the poorer.”
The Virginia lawmakers — who were joined by Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hillary Shelton — said the law should be passed this year, and signed by the first black president.
Kaine said he did not yet know the exact cost of the commission, but that prior commissions' spending was "not significant." A Kaine spokeswoman said, based on the past experience, they are estimating the cost could be around $5 million, and it is expected that the commission would raise some portion of the money needed for its operations. She also said the commission would have one full-time employee.
According the bill text, the commission would be comprised of 15 people chosen with input from the Virginia government, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, civil rights and historical organizations, the National Park Service, members of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian museum dedicated to African American history and culture on the National Mall is set to open in September.
The lawmakers and advocates gathered in the Senate said honoring the impact of African Americans is vital.
“Too much of our history was lost, forgotten, ignored or otherwise fragmented or overly simplified,” said the NAACP's Shelton. “It is my hope that this federal commission, with access to all the records and histories of the past, will be able to tie everything together. ... This legislation could not have come at a better time.”
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