PROVIDENCE — On the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, the House on Tuesday passed a bill requiring that African-American history be taught in Rhode Island schools.
But that final unanimous vote came only after a heated debate about a Republican lawmaker’s attempt to amend the bill to require education about Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and those with roots in more than two dozen other countries.
And after eight Republicans voted against a section of the bill because it contains the words “Black Lives Matter,” which they said refers to a partisan organization.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, grew frustrated before the final vote, at one point walking down the aisle without a microphone, saying, “Enough is enough now.”
In a statement, Williams said the goal of the legislation is to give all students “a more comprehensive understanding of the crucial role that Rhode Island played in the slave trade throughout the history of our nation, as well as the many contributions African Americans have made to our society.”
Williams said the past year has shown that “the connections that hold our society together are fragile.” But, she said, “These connections can become strong through respect, compassion, and most importantly, truth.”
At the outset of Tuesday’s House session, Williams thanked House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, for working with her to improve the bill.
But that bipartisan spirit quickly evaporated when Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, tried to amend the bill to require education about a wide variety of other “nationalities or ethnicities.” She called for teaching about Portuguese-Americans, Cape Verdean-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, French-Americans, English-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Latino-Americans, Dominican-Americans, Guatemalan-Americans, and several others.
“In no way am I minimizing the history, the evil, the immorality of slavery that was part of our history,” Morgan said. “It should be taught, and I’m glad to say it is being taught.”
But, she said, “We should always, especially in this time of incredible division in our state and in our country, understand the histories and the heritage and the contribution of other nationalities because they have all contributed to this wonderful state that we live in.”
For a while, it appeared that no other legislators, including other Republicans, would second her amendment. It only went forward when Deputy House Speaker Charlene M. Lima, a Cranston Democrat, seconded it, later explaining that she disagreed with it but wanted to give her a chance to be heard.
But Representative John G. Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat who serves as majority floor manager, argued the amendment was not germane to the bill.
“Basically this amendment has added almost every ethnic group that is found on the planet,” Edwards said. “She has added 27 from what I can tell. This bill is about African-American history, not the history of the globe.”
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, agreed that the amendment was not germane.
Morgan kept arguing, saying legislators had previously passed a bill on civic education, so this bill was not necessary.
But Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, urged legislators to support Williams’ bill. If lawmakers want to ensure education about other groups, they should put in separate bills, she said.
Fenton-Fung is married to the state’s most prominent Asian-American politician, former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, and she said, “Next year, I will probably put (a bill) in on Asian-Americans so that the kids know that at one point in our history Rhode Island participated in the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
But, she said, “It’s OK to celebrate one heritage, it’s OK to educate about one, and then work on other bills to make sure their stories are told and celebrated so future generations are even better than we are.”
Also, Fenton-Fung said it was “very poignant” that the bill was passing on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. “That doesn’t escape me here today,” she said.
Representative Liana Cassar, a Barrington Democrat who is biracial, spoke in favor of the bill.
“It’s just a reminder that up until now for students in our state learning about African-American history was basically optional. It was often relegated to the one month a year, Black History Month,” she said. “And if we were lucky enough on the college level, it was ‘elective.’ Our history should not be an elective. It should not be optional.”
Filippi, the Republican minority leader, asked for a separate vote on the “legislative findings” section of the bill that says, in part: “With the unifying call that Black Lives Matter, for racial reconciliation and for social justice during the summer of 2020, and citizen equity being reflected across the state, nation and world, the establishment of an African Heritage History curriculum in Rhode Island is long overdue.”
Filippi said that by capitalizing “Black Lives Matter,” the bill is referring to an organization “that has largely contributed to one party” – the Democratic Party – and that would not be appropriate to include in the state’s general laws. He said he would OK with the language if “black lives matter” was not capitalized because, he said, “black lives do matter.”
Williams said she doesn’t belong to the Black Lives Matter organization and her bill was not intended to promote any group. “At the end of the day,” she said, “black lives do matter.”
The House voted 58-8 for the legislative findings section of the bill, and it voted 74-0 for the rest of the bill.
The legislation calls for every school district to include in its curriculum a unit of instruction on African-American heritage and history, beginning with the 2022-2023 school year. The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society will be leading the curriculum design, working with Rhode Island College and the Rhode Island Historical Society.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.