S. 2548

400 Years of African-American History Commission Act

STATEMENT OF DR. STEPHANIE TOOTHMAN, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FOR CULTURAL RESOURCES, PARTNERSHIPS, AND SCIENCE, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES, CONCERNING S. 2548, A BILL TO ESTABLISH THE 400 YEARS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY COMMISSION, AND FOR OTHERS PURPOSES.

JUNE 15, 2016

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 2548, a bill to establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission.

The Department supports S. 2548, however, we would like to work with the committee on the composition of the commission.

S. 2548 would create the 400 Years of African-American History Commission (Commission) to commemorate four centuries of African-American history in the United States.  Through programs, activities, education, and outreach, the Commission would honor the arrival of Africans in the United States and the contributions of African-Americans throughout the nation.

The Commission would consist of 15 members appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, including an employee of the National Park Service (NPS).  It also authorizes the Commission to provide grants of up to $20,000 and technical assistance to communities and nonprofit organizations for the development of programs, projects, and activities to assist in the commemoration.  It would also provide grants to research and scholarly organizations to research, publish, and distribute information relating to the arrival of Africans in the United States.  The bill would allow federal employees to be detailed to the Commission, at the Commission’s request.  Finally, the bill provides the authorization of funds until the Commission terminates on July 1, 2020.

When the first African people arrived in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619, it was not in the pursuit of a new life, wealth, or freedom from oppression; it was in bondage, against their will, with a loss of their freedom.  Their arrival marked the beginning of a long and difficult narrative of slavery, resistance, reconstruction, and civil rights, with the story still being written today.  However, in all the tragedy and hardship that is interwoven into the history of slavery in America, there is a greater narrative of resilience and perseverance, making it one of the greatest survival stories rarely told and not fully understood.  The work of this Commission would support the research, preservation, and commemoration of this 400-year history of courage, determination, and great accomplishment in the face of brutal oppression.

There are several units in the National Park System that help to tell the story of the African-American struggle and triumph, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, and the African Burial Ground National Monument.  However, the NPS recognizes that there are countless sites outside of the system that deserve recognition.  These sites and stories related to African-American history have not always been fully recognized or preserved, and are often in danger of being lost or destroyed.  If enacted, S. 2548 would establish a Commission that could prevent further loss through partnership coordination, research, educational outreach efforts, technical assistance, and commemoration activities leading up the 400-year anniversary of African-American history.

Establishing a commission to commemorate and recognize the resilience and contributions of African-Americans since 1619, as envisioned in S. 2548, would provide the nation an opportunity to reflect upon their struggles and successes within an environment that would be inclusive and contemplative.  The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service stand ready to contribute their resources and expertise to this important commemoration.  Ultimately, the Commission would create greater public insight, foster preservation, and promote increased awareness of this 400-year narrative of great resilience and immeasurable contribution to our American story.

While we support establishment of this Commission, we would like to work with the committee to ensure that the Commission represents a diverse composition of national, state, local, and private individuals.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.  I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.