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Vol. LXI, No. 23
 
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
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Teacher Receives Exemplary Practices Award From New Jersey Amistad Commission

Linda Arntzenius

Princeton resident and John Witherspoon Middle School teacher, Constance Killian Escher, received one of three Exemplary Practices Awards from the New Jersey Amistad Commission at its third annual awards ceremony and reception at Drumthwacket, the Governor's mansion, last Thursday, May 31.

Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells recognized the sixth grade teacher for her work in integrating African American history into the curriculum.

Joshua L. Rosenbaum of the Sojourner Truth Middle School in East Orange and Catherine Wishart of the Samuel T. Busansky Elementary School in Pemberton also received Exemplary Practices Awards.

Executive Director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission Karen Jackson-Weaver saluted the educators: "Our winners realize the importance of implementing and infusing African American history every day and not relegating it to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday or Black History Month."

Ms. Escher taught her students about the triangular nature of the slave trade and its implications. Her class wrote essays describing the key role that the transport of African peoples played in a complexity of trade involving ivory, gold, and grain in Africa, sugar in the West Indies, and rum, rice, and guns in the American Colonies.

"Our teachers are our heroes," said Secretary of State Wells. "Our children are shortchanged if they are not taught about all our role models; African American history is important for all Americans," she said. "And this history is rich in role models."

Ms. Escher, who co-founded the Children's Museum of the Historical Society of Princeton and has written curriculum packages for Princeton Regional Schools, has long worked to infuse the historical record with the importance of the lives of African Americans, especially African American women in New Jersey in the Antebellum period.

She has written extensively on Princeton history including a definitive biography of Betsey Stockton (1798?-1865), a freed slave and the first African American public school principal in Princeton as well as in New Jersey. Ms. Escher's research was published in Princeton History (Number 10, 1991), the journal of the Historical Society of Princeton.

Passion for History

Growing up in Bennington, Vermont, Ms. Escher said that she breathed in history from a young age — from her environment, her family, and her teachers. "I knew that I wanted to be a history teacher when I was ten years old, after visiting Plymouth Plantation during the summers with my parents and siblings."

"Bennington was a community where history and attitudes about freedom of the individual were embedded," she said. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison first published his beliefs there in 1828-29, in an office right across the street from the Old First Church, where, Ms. Escher noted, she and her husband Gus were married.

Attending schools in Bennington, Ms. Escher was taught by individuals passionate about history, such as her own sixth grade teacher Philip Viereck. Her mother, Anita Scott Killian, an English and reading teacher and a graduate of Keene State College inspired her to a career in teaching. At Vassar College she majored in American History and went on to graduate work at Dartmouth College and to become a research associate on the faculty of Princeton University's Davis Center for Historical Studies. She has a master's in teaching from Marygrove College, Michigan, and has taught in the Princeton Regional Schools district for two decades.

In 1994, when New Jersey mandated instruction on the Holocaust and genocide in the curriculum of all elementary and secondary school students, Ms. Escher was building a study program exploring the issue of prejudice and discrimination for her fifth grade students at Community Park School. While the focus was the Salem witch-hunt events of 1692/93, Ms. Escher grasped the program's import for the state mandate. Her work became a model for what she described as "deep down learning." Community Park students struggled with the moral issue of the bystander and embodied their lessons in a staged drama about the witch trials. Dr. Paul Winkler of the New Jersey Holocaust/Genocide Commission designated Ms. Escher's classroom a demonstration site in 1995.

"Can Kids Love History," an article by Ms. Escher, published in Vassar Quarterly (Summer 1998), described this earlier experience, upon which her work on the slave trade at JWMS has built. "Amistad follows that same pattern of helping kids relate this history to their own lives," said Ms. Escher, who is proud of the fact that New Jersey is at the forefront of teaching difficult historical periods and subjects.

She attributes the state's lead, in part, to legislation that understands and responds to the state's history and the diversity of its citizens. "The New Jersey Holocaust/Genocide Commission became a blueprint for many other states, in educating students about the complex issues of prejudice and racism," said Ms. Escher. "Similarly, New Jersey's Amistad legislation and the creation of its Commission realized the enormous gaps in the historical record, as taught, and has sought to enrich and enlighten all Americans about the unsung contributions of African American women and men, including the sacrifice of many lives, to realized the American dream."

At Thursday's award ceremony, Assemblyman William D. Payne (D-Newark), a member of the Commission and a former teacher, said: "We have come a long way beyond a brief acknowledgment of the contribution of George Washington Carver. It's an honor to congratulate these exemplary leaders."

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Legislation designed to recognize the rich contribution of people of the African Diaspora was initiated in New Jersey in 1998, and culminated in the Amistad Act, passed in 2002.

Named for the Amistad — a ship commandeered by slaves in 1839 and about which filmmaker Steven Spielberg made a 1997 film of the same name — the New Jersey Amistad Commission was the first authorized by state lawmakers. In 2004, Illinois introduced its own Amistad Commission, and lawmakers in New York passed a resolution calling for the creation of one in 2005.

"African Americans see themselves as, and indeed are, Americans," said Ms. Weaver. "The commission seeks to fully integrate the roles and contributions of African Americans into American society."

Lillie Johnson-Edwards, a member of the Commission, congratulated those with the courage and foresight to usher in the legislation, whose goal is not just to add to the history of African Americans to the American story but to transform the teaching of history in New Jersey. "We are a diverse civilization and if the Queen of England could recognize that there were three civilizations intersecting at Jamestown, then we should recognize it ourselves," she said, in reference to comment by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during a recent visit to Jamestown, America's first permanent English settlement. Comparing her visit to one of 50 year's ago — an all-white affair in a still-segregated state — the Queen said: "Over the course of my reign and certainly since I first visited Jamestown in 1957, my country has become a much more diverse society, just as the commonwealth of Virginia and the whole United States of America have also undergone a major social change."

Ms. Edwards said: "We're not talking about displacing the list of our founding fathers and the founding mothers. We are saying that there's a much longer list to be acknowledged and celebrated."

Resource Center

The $5,000 award will be used to establish an African American history resource center at the middle school, purchasing literature and non-fiction reading materials, and bringing an Amistad expert, a descendant of the Mende peoples, to the school for workshops for teachers and students.

In addition, Ms. Escher plans to have professional quality photographs made that will expand the biographical details of the life and work of Betsey Stockton.

Ms. Escher hopes to mount an exhibit of photographs at the Princeton Public Library, J. Seward Johnson, Jr. Exhibit Room, on the first floor, furthering her joint work with Terri Nelson, curator of the Princeton African American collection room.

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