By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; A01
RICHMOND -- After a barrage of nationwide criticism for excluding slavery from his Confederate History Month proclamation, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Wednesday conceded that it was "a major omission" and amended the document to acknowledge the state's complicated past.
A day earlier, McDonnell said he left out any reference to slavery in the original seven-paragraph proclamation because he wanted to include issues he thought were most "significant" to Virginia. He also said the document was designed to promote tourism in the state, which next year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
However, Wednesday afternoon the governor issued a mea culpa for the document's exclusion of slavery. "The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission," McDonnell said in a statement. "The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed."
McDonnell also called the nation's first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia, and the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), to apologize after they said they were offended by the document. McDonnell told them that he would alter the proclamation to include slavery and acknowledge that it was the cause of the Civil War.
The original declaration called on Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War." McDonnell added language to the document that said slavery "was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders."
But his decision to declare April Confederate History Month continued to cause a firestorm Wednesday, with national media descending on Richmond and Democrats and African Americans accusing the new governor of ignoring the state's role in slavery.
Sheila Johnson, one of McDonnell's most prominent black supporters and the wealthy co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, condemned the proclamation, calling it "insensitive" to Virginia's complicated and painful history.
"If Virginians are to celebrate their 'shared history,' as this proclamation suggests, then the whole truth of this history must be recognized and not evaded," said Johnson, who participated in a political ad for McDonnell's gubernatorial bid last fall and headlined several fundraisers during his campaign against Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.
State Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), a member of the black caucus, accepted the governor's apology Wednesday but said he was disappointed that the state had to undergo the embarrassment and national scrutiny that followed the proclamation. "It's a black eye," he said.
McDonnell revived a controversy that had been dormant for years. Confederate History Month was started by Gov. George Allen (R) in 1997. Allen's successor, James S. Gilmore III (R), included anti-slavery language in his proclamation.
In 2002, Mark R. Warner, Gilmore's successor, broke with their actions, calling such proclamations a "lightning rod" that did not help bridge divisions between whites and blacks in Virginia. Four years later, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was asked to issue a proclamation but did not.
Kaine, who now serves as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, criticized McDonnell in a statement Wednesday.
"Governor McDonnell's decision to designate April as Confederate History Month without condemning, or even acknowledging, the pernicious stain of slavery or its role in the war disregards history, is insensitive to the extraordinary efforts of Americans to eliminate slavery and bind the nation's wounds, and offends millions of Americans of all races and in all parts of our nation," he said.
This year's proclamation was requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A representative of the group said it has known since it interviewed McDonnell when he was running for attorney general in 2005 that he was likely to respond differently than Warner and Kaine.
Brag Bowling, a national board member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his organization supported adding language about slavery to the proclamation.
"Governor McDonnell is taking some really unnecessary heat for this," he said. "Most of it is coming from his political opposition. . . . If this helps him with his opposition, then we support him."
Bowling called McDonnell "a man of conviction and courage" for recognizing Confederate History Month. And though Bowling said he would have preferred language calling slavery just one of several factors that led to the Civil War, he agreed that a full accounting of the era must include a discussion of slavery.
"All we're looking for is an accurate history, which we don't get in schools anymore or in the media," Bowling said. "The idea is to promote education in Virginia and tourism. Hopefully, we can still do that."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.