Rep. Bobby Scott (Twitter Photo)

House lawmakers on July 5 passed legislation which would establish a new federal commission to commemorate the contributions of African Americans to the U.S. since slavery began in 1619.

Lawmakers approved a bill offered by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission. The commission will develop and carry out activities throughout the U.S. commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Va., in 1619.

“The commission established by this bill will be charged with the important task of planning, developing and implementing a series of programs and activities throughout 2019 that fully tells the story of African Americans, their contributions to the fabric of our nation, and their resilience over the last 400 years,” Scott said.

He said that the 20 Africans who arrived at Point Comfort were the first on record to be forcibly settled as involuntary laborers in the then-English colonies.

“Slavery was an abhorrent institution; but for hundreds of years, it was the foundation of the colonial and early American agricultural system and was essential to its economic sustainability,” Scott noted. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of a companion measure in the Senate, said that African American lives have mattered every day for the last four centuries. 

“The story has a lot of pain to it, but it’s a story that has to be told to commemorate that we as a nation—had it not been for 400 years of African American history—would be absolutely unrecognizable,” Kaine said. “What we hope to do with this bill is engage in something we should do to tell the story in a different way than it may have been told 50 to 100 years ago.” 

The 15 members of the commission would be appointed by the Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, with consideration given to recommendations made by the governor of Virginia as well as civil rights and historical organizations, according to the bill. 

The National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution will each appoint one member, while members of Congress would also be able to make recommendations.

The commission would be required to encourage civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, economic, and other organizations throughout the U.S. to organize and participate in anniversary activities that expand understanding and appreciation of contributions made by African Americans.

The commission would also be allowed to provide $20,000 grants to communities and nonprofit groups for use in developing commemorative programs. The commission would end on July 1, 2020.

According to the bill, the commission would be required to: 

  • plan programs that show slavery’s impact and effect of laws that maintained racial discrimination;
  • help states, local governments and nonprofit groups commemorate the impact of African Americans on the U.S.; and
  • coordinate scholarly research on African Americans and their contributions to America.

The legislation was co-sponsored by Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Scott Rigell (R-Va.), and John Lewis (D-Ga.), as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus.  The bill has also received support from the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“African Americans have contributed greatly to our Nation, and their achievements deserve to be celebrated,” Scott said in debate on the House floor. “The history of Virginia and our Nation cannot be fully understood without recognizing the role played by the slave trade.