Fury Over Delegate's Remarks on Slavery

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

RICHMOND, Jan. 16 -- A veteran Virginia lawmaker from suburban Richmond ignited a hot exchange in the House of Delegates on Tuesday after criticizing a proposal for the state to issue an apology for slavery and likening it to requiring Jews to apologize for "killing Christ."

Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr., a Republican from Hanover County, told lawmakers that his comments were intended only to make the point that "not a soul in this legislature" had anything to do with slavery -- and that there is no point in dwelling on a chapter of U.S. history that all agree was repugnant.

"If we keep bringing this up, bringing this up -- I think this is a harmful idea just to keep recycling this thing which we all know and all despise and have no respect for," said Hargrove, a 25-year veteran of the House.

But Hargrove's remarks, first made in a newspaper interview on the holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., prompted a blistering censure from the 17-member Legislative Black Caucus. The Anti-Defamation League condemned Hargrove's comments about Jews.

His statements caused further consternation for Virginia Republicans, who are recovering from the defeat of U.S. Sen. George Allen last year and who are preparing for a tough election year in which all 140 General Assembly seats will come open.

Allen's defeat was attributed in part to his use of the word macaca -- a slur in some cultures -- to describe a young man of Indian descent. The one-term senator and former governor was accused of racial insensitivity, and his popularity plummeted -- notably in Northern Virginia, where affluent and well-educated newcomers are swaying the state's politics away from its more conservative, less racially tolerant past.

Hargrove's remarks don't help the GOP's image, said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., a Fairfax County Republican and a 39-year House veteran whose district has been targeted by Democrats for the fall elections.

"People ought to have learned a lesson from this past year's senatorial campaign in Virginia," Callahan said. "We live in a different age as far as sensitivity goes and personal feelings. Particularly in a legislative body, where we operate in a goldfish bowl, we ought to be very careful about what we say in public."

The flap caused much greater outrage among Democrats and blacks in the legislature, who bristled at the timing of the remarks, not only on the King holiday but also at the start of a year during which Virginia is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, where blacks were once sold as slaves.

"For 400 years, this commonwealth has not apologized, and I for one believe it is high time for that apology," said Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), sponsor of the resolution, which would require the General Assembly to "atone for the involuntary servitude of Africans and call for reconciliation among all Virginians."

McEachin also rebuked Hargrove for making a theologically incorrect statement: that Jews killed Christ. "My faith teaches me that Christ died for the sins of all of mankind," he said.

Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who is Jewish, said that such comments give him reason to fear for his 7-year-old son's safety and self-esteem.

"As a young child, I dealt with verbal attacks and physical attacks from other children who believed that, as a Jew, I killed Christ," Englin said. "When people of the respect and stature of a member of this body perpetuate that notion, it troubles me."

Del. Dwight Clinton Jones (D-Richmond), chairman of the black caucus, scoffed at the idea that people should "get over" slavery "as if slavery was a birthday party that somebody had last Saturday night."

"If there are those who do not feel the need to apologize, I want to apologize," Jones continued. "I want to apologize to the mothers and fathers of my ancestors who were transported to this nation against their will in order that this nation might be built upon their backs. I want to apologize to the mothers and fathers of the civil rights generation who were hosed and bitten by dogs, and their children killed in churches as they burned, because of hatred that was put upon them. I want to apologize to them."

Hargrove, whose original remarks were reported in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, tried to make amends during a speech on the House floor. As fellow Republicans looked on warily -- notably House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who stood stiffly and silently at the back of the chamber -- Hargrove told Englin, his seatmate, that Englin's "skin was a little too thin."

"I didn't even know you were Jewish," said Hargrove, who turns 80 this month. "I don't care what your religion is. I really don't care."

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