'Regret' Over Md. Role in Slavery
State Senate Resolution Follows Similar Action in Virginia

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 .

Slavery officially ended in Maryland in 1864 with the adoption of a new state Constitution.

Some wonder whether legislation endorsed by elected officials could do more harm than good.

"It can be potentially damaging in that it concentrates attention on historical discrimination and leaves out the more modern discrimination," said David A. Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "If the state legislature wants to apologize for something, how about the quality of education that students in Baltimore City are getting?"

Drafters of the resolution intentionally left out the word "apology." The word was not used in Virginia's resolution, either.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), the first black mayor of Richmond and a sponsor of the resolution, said there was spirited discussion about word choice.

At one point, the word "atonement" was in a draft copy of the legislation. It was removed because, he said, one of the definitions for atonement is reparations, and the sponsors and GOP leaders did not want a debate about reparations.

"This resolution was not about reparations. It was about an acknowledgment," Marsh said. "To express profound regret satisfied the effort that we were trying to do. It was more meaningful to have a unanimous vote in a Republican-controlled legislature than to have a split vote."

Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George's), who sponsored the measure in the House, said "profound regret" and apology are synonymous to him. "It's an apology in my book," he said.

Some civil rights leaders are hoping that the resolutions will lay the framework for a discussion about reparations.

"To pass a resolution is a start," said Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We're going for the bottom line: eradicating racism and dealing with the wrongdoings of the past."

But Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Baltimore City) said the resolution is about stepping back to remember something that many don't want to remember. She said it's a way to move forward.

"The first step for healing to take place is for there to be an acknowledgment," said Jones, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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