11/08/2011 06:53 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2012

Slavery and the Law Takes an Honest Look at Our History

In 1996, the New York state legislature passed a resolution requiring public schools to focus the social studies curriculum on human rights issues. The state's Human Rights curriculum is supposed to include guidelines and material for teaching about the European Holocaust, the Great Irish Famine, and slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. An award-winning 1,000-page interdisciplinary fourth through twelfth grade curriculum on the Great Irish Famine was completed and distributed by the state in 2001. A number of Holocaust curricula developed by museums, local school districts, and non-profit agencies are in use. However, a state-approved curriculum for teaching about slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade was never developed.

Part of the problem was that the State Department of Education envisioned the curriculum as a celebration of "New York's Freedom Trail," its role on the underground railway, and as a base of operations for abolitionists. Many historians, however, especially those from the African American community, wanted students to take a much more critical look at the state's role in promoting and profiting from human bondage.

In September 2005, the State Legislature finally acted again and established an Amistad Commission to examine whether the "physical and psychological terrorism" against Africans in the slave trade was being adequately taught in the state's schools. But the commission was never adequately funded and exists on paper only.

In response to official inaction, I helped produce the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum with the support of the New York State Council for the Social Studies and a Teaching American History grant. This curriculum received the National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award but was never officially approved or distributed by the State Education Department. I also wrote New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth, which was published by SUNY Press.

The Office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has now taken the initiative to create a one-hour movie on Slavery and the Law with funding from the Kellogg Foundation.

Slavery and the Law documents the creation of a mural by Brooklyn teenagers, interweaving their journey of discovery through art with an examination of the legal status of enslaved Africans in Colonial America up until the American Civil Rights Movement. The film chronicles struggles to transform the law and create a more just society. The goal is to provide students with knowledge of the past to empower them to become active citizens committed to racial healing and social justice.

The video was produced and directed by documentary filmmaker Paula Heredia. Participating historians and educators include former New York State Regent Adelaide Sanford, Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland, a former President of the Organization of American Historians, Deborah Gray White and Clement Price of Rutgers University, Gloria Browne-Marshall of John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY, as well as District Attorney Hynes. There is also a panel of community-based religious leaders who discuss possibilities for unity and racial healing at the end of the film. The project was coordinated by Deputy District Attorney Joan Gabbidon.

I was fortunate to be involved in the production as both an on-camera commentator and as a consulting historian and I helped develop a curriculum guide for secondary school classes. I think my most important contribution to the project is the idea that laws are not etched in stone. They are created by people to facilitate our ability to live together. Sometimes laws are fair, and sometimes, as in the case of slavery and segregation, they are unjust. Students need to know that people have changed the law in the past to create more just societies and we can change them in the future.

At a preview, I was very impressed with the final product. The young people who created the mural and spoke on camera are excellent. Paula Heredia has blended the various commentators into a seamless narrative so it appears that they are actually talking with one an other. I hope to see people at the premiere.

The premiere showing of Slavery and the Law will be at Medgar Evers College, 1650 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn on Wednesday November 16, 2011 at 11 AM. It is open to the public and will be followed by a panel discussion. For further information contact 718-250-3879 or