A state commission set up to examine the American slave trade met Tuesday for the first time publicly, with members vowing to help shape how history is portrayed in classrooms.
The group’s goal is to “find out what really happened,” said Anderson Thompson, commission member and professor at Northeastern Illinois University. He said when the 19-member bipartisan board completes its research in the spring, it plans to publish its findings and disseminate course materials to public-school children.
The Historic Illinois Transatlantic Slave Trade Commission was created in May 2005. It was given a budget of $400,000.
Charged with determining “the extent to which slavery was supported by federal and state governments,” the commission’s charter duplicates much of the language of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.
“Schools aren’t teaching our histories,” said commission member Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood). She said one aim is to raise awareness of the “lingering negative effects” of slavery.
Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute in Chicago, said in a telephone interview that the commission’s efforts would help cut through the rhetoric that impedes slave-trade research.
“The commission has a real opportunity to get some facts and objective evidence into the debate,” he said. “For too long, it’s been dominated by the loudest voices and political agendas.”
Meanwhile, portions of the research continue with commission staff member Kesha Daniels, 30, who is examining what she called Illinois’ oft-ignored role in the slave trade. She said learning about her ancestors is not only intriguing, but also important.
“I’m fortunate,” she said, “to have this chance to study such a complex aspect of history that is not often told.”