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'Regret' Over Md. Role in Slavery

"This resolution was not about reparations. It was about an acknowledgment," Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) said of the Virginia resolution, whose wording is reflected in Maryland's version. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Maryland Senate agreed to express "profound regret" for the state's role in the slave trade with unanimous approval of a resolution that acknowledges the responsibility the state had in maintaining "the institution of slavery and its attendant evils."

The gesture of contrition comes just a month after Virginia passed a similar resolution as part of the state's 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown. Lawmakers in several other states and cities, including Missouri, Georgia and Annapolis, have been discussing comparable measures.

The Maryland resolution, which appears likely to win approval in the House as well, says slavery "fostered a climate of oppression" not just for slaves and their descendants but for other people of color who moved to Maryland after slavery was abolished and has "afflicted the citizens of this state down to the present."

Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), whose great-grandfather was a slave, sponsored the Maryland legislation, hoping to empower African Americans. Exum has tried unsuccessfully for years to get legislation passed.

Why -- a decade after then-Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) introduced his first of two unsuccessful resolutions for Congress to apologize to African Americans for slavery -- are resolutions expressing "profound regret" moving their way through state legislatures?

Some say it is all about timing and carefully crafted wording.

University of Maryland professor Ronald Walters, who testified in favor of the resolution, said Virginia, which was one of the leaders in the slave trade, has "opened the floodgates" for other states to consider resolutions.

"It's time that we do it," Exum said, adding that he initially wanted stronger language in the resolution. In years past, he has introduced bills calling for reparations, but he tempered the measure with hopes of beginning a dialogue about race relations in Maryland.

"I just hope it creates a better dialogue about why some people feel the way they do," Exum said.

From 1700 to 1770, thousands of West Africans who survived the middle passage ended up in the Chesapeake Bay region, many docked just blocks away from the State House in Annapolis.

One in four African-born slaves survived his or her first year in the Chesapeake area.

By 1790, more than 100,000 slaves, a third of the total state population, lived in Maryland. In 1830, some of the Methodist churches on the Eastern Shore as well as a number in counties bordering Pennsylvania that had been deeply influenced by Methodist leader Francis Asbury called for members to get rid of slaves and to abstain from the practice .


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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