In Va. House, 'Profound Regret' on Slavery

House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford), left, Del. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) and Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) are members of a committee that earlier passed a version of the slavery bill approved Friday.
House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford), left, Del. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) and Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) are members of a committee that earlier passed a version of the slavery bill approved Friday. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 3, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 2 -- The House of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution Friday expressing "profound regret" for Virginia's role in the slave trade, a significant act of contrition by a body that used to start the day with a salute that symbolized the state's Confederate heritage.

The resolution, one of several that lawmakers are considering as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown, is one of the biggest steps any state has taken in offering remorse for the enslavement of millions of Africans and Caribbean islanders during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The statement also condemns the "egregious wrongs" that European settlers inflicted on Native Americans.

"The General Assembly hereby expresses its profound regret for the Commonwealth's role in sanctioning the immoral institution of human slavery, in the historic wrongs visited upon native peoples, and in all other forms of discrimination and injustice that have been rooted in racial and cultural bias and misunderstanding," the resolution reads.

Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), whose great-grandfather was born a slave, sponsored the resolution. But GOP leaders wrangled over the language for weeks, fearful that an outright apology could lay the groundwork for a debate over reparations. Although he would have preferred an apology, McEachin said the final version "doesn't sugarcoat the matter either."

African American leaders said the resolution marks an important step in the state's effort to move beyond its stormy history of race relations, which includes government-sanctioned resistance to integration during the 1950s.

"There is some pain at first, but there is a beautiful product at the end," McEachin said of his colleagues' embrace of the resolution. "Virginia had nothing to do with the end of slavery. It had everything to do with the beginning of slavery."

This year, the state and federal government will celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Europeans arrived in May 1607. In 1619, 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown on a Dutch ship and were traded for goods, marking the start of slavery in what would become the United States, National Park Service officials said.

Richmond later became a hub for the slave trade and was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War.

As part of the Jamestown celebration, African Americans have been making a big push to promote the settlement's role in the slave trade. In Virginia, where the average slave owner held as many as eight people of African descent, the servants became the backbone of the state's widespread tobacco industry. In 1860, for example, as many as 20,000 slaves lived in what are now Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, according to the 1860 slave count.

Slavery remained a major part of the state's culture until the end of the Civil War, in 1865.

Senators are considering a competing proposal that goes further than the House resolution in its condemnation of slavery. The Senate rules committee approved a resolution Friday that says the General Assembly "acknowledges with contrition the involuntary servitude of Africans."

If, as expected, it passes the full Senate next week, a conference committee of senators and delegates will have to be appointed to develop compromise language.

B. Frank Earnest Sr., commander of the Virginia Chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, said Virginia should not be addressing the issue. "It was a national wrong, and it should be addressed nationally," Earnest said. "Countries all over the world had a hand in it and sold blacks, so why just Virginia?"

Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) the first black mayor of Richmond, said his resolution is intended to symbolize the state's history on race relations, not just slavery.

A former civil rights lawyer, Marsh recalled the General Assembly's approval of a "massive resistance" policy in the 1950s to rebel against the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that integrated schools. Under the policy, the governor closed schools in Warren County, Norfolk, and Charlottesville instead of integrating them.

In the 1960s, Marsh said, he represented civil rights leaders who were called before the legislature for questioning about their motives. "We spent state resources to attack civil rights leaders, white and black, so it's time we say we made mistakes as a state: We're sorry, and let's move ahead," Marsh said.

Despite Virginia's struggle with race relations, the commonwealth became the first state to elect a black governor, Democrat L. Douglas Wilder in 1989.

But questions about the state's racial attitudes persisted. Instead of honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. alone, the state had a Lee-Jackson-King Day between 1984 and 2001 that honored King and Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The state now has a separate holiday in January that honors Lee and Jackson.

In 2002, the House Republican leadership revived a custom of saluting the Virginia flag and paying tribute to the "Old Dominion." Before each session, they recited a pledge to the flag written by a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that some blacks said was a symbol of the state's segregated past. The practice was stopped two years later because Democrats refused to participate.

Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth) said he hopes the House resolution shows the nation that Virginia has evolved in its racial attitudes: "We have a very checkered history in terms of race relations and anything of a positive nature that acknowledges that past has to be viewed as a progressive move."

But the proposed resolutions were not without controversy.

When Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr. (R-Hanover) heard about efforts to offer an official apology, he generated national headlines when he said blacks "should get over" slavery.

He also asked, "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?" Since then, Hargrove has tempered his feelings and is the leading sponsor of a separate House resolution calling for state recognition of June 19 as Juneteenth Day. The day symbolizes the day on which federal troops freed the last slaves, in Galveston, Tex., in 1865.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company