March 27, 2004

Amistad law’s lessons struggle to reach class
By DIANE D’AMICO Education Writer, (609) 272-7241

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Miriam Martin uses technology to help students at the South Main Street Elementary School in Pleasantville learn about their African heritage. She focuses on the positive, and admits any lesson on slavery has to be handled delicately.

"We don't want our children to be ashamed of their history or feel inferior," she said. "We need teachers who can approach the subject with both black and white children."

Legislation signed into law in 2002 has placed slavery more prominently into the state Social Studies standards. A new Amistad Commission was formed to promote awareness of slavery, its aftermath and the positive contributions of African-Americans in building America.

But at a time when they should be leading the movement, professors say Black Studies programs at colleges in New Jersey are often just hanging on by a barely-budgeted thread. Begun during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s and 1970s, programs struggle to get continued support.

"The only reason we still exist is because we are a department and it's hard to dismantle us," said Gloria Dickinson, chair of African American Studies at The College of New Jersey.

On Friday, college professors, high school teachers and college students met at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to discuss the state of Black Studies in New Jersey and how the goal of the Amistad Commission will work its way into K-12 classrooms.

The news was not entirely good.

Stockton offers a minor in African American Studies, but does not have a budget, a staff or even an office. Program coordinator Patricia Reid-Merritt is officially a professor of social work.

"It's great they passed the legislation," Reid-Merritt said. "But how are the teachers going to get the education they need to implement it?"

The workshop developed two proposals. One would ask the state Department of Education to recognize Black Studies with a formal teaching certification. The second would create a Black Studies Center at the Southern Regional Institute at Stockton, which specializes in teacher training.

"This is a tremendous amount of work," Reid-Merritt said. "But we want this to become part of the mainstream of education."

Institute director Harvey Kesselman said the Institute would be ideal for the center, but it would take some seed money to develop curriculum. Once that is done, the Institute could add Black Studies training to programs it already offers to school districts throughout southern New Jersey.

"It's time to go from the philosophical to the pragmatic of how we get this into the classroom," he said. "We have to make sure teachers are comfortable with the issue."

Speakers at the workshop said it is clear most teachers are not comfortable. Students go through years of Black History Month programs learning about the same few things - Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.

"Sometimes black students don't like to be reminded that their ancestors were enslaved," Reid-Merritt said.

Stockton student Jaylin Thomas said even though she went to a predominantly black high school, she knew nothing about African culture until she took courses at Stockton.

"It's like we were nothing before slavery," she said. "The history provides a moral stability."

Public health major Raymond Rosyter, who is also president of the Unified Black Student Society, said it is depressing for him to sit in public health classes that talk about the problems of poor minorities and view them as constantly needy.

"Our role in history should be taught even in preschool, with books and stories," said Armon Wilson, president of Stockton's NAACP chapter.

Sandra Lewis, a professor at Montclair University, said many teachers are unaware the Amistad Commission exists. She would like to see the colleges offer post-baccalaureate certificates in Black Studies.

"Teachers are open and willing, but they need our support," she said.

Egg Harbor Township High School history teacher Steven Marcus liked workshop suggestions to integrate Black Studies into science, English and the arts. He agreed many teachers would require some coursework, especially older teachers whose college experience likely focused solely on Western Civilization.

"We are here looking for ideas," he said. "It would be really nice if there were a couple of courses we could take."

To e-mail Diane D'Amico at The Press: DDamico@pressofac.com