Sometimes it’s all too easy to say sorry. But when, as prelude, one has to acknowledge centuries of racial injustice that marginalized millions and resulted in countless deaths, there is, at least, a moment of reckoning. And that moment came Wednesday for Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who signed his state’s formal apology for slavery — 226 years of slavery, to be exact — in an attempt to help its citizens “confront the ghosts of their past.”
Delaware, as its joint resolution shows, took quite a bit of blame.
“Whereas,” it began, “during the course of the infamous Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries, millions of Africans were forcibly abducted to and enslaved in the New World, and millions more died during passage …”
This was just the beginning — there were quite a few “Whereases.” Among them: “Delaware enslaved Africans and Native Americans in the mid-1600s and its entire slave population was of African descent by the close of the 1700s,” “Delaware criminalized humanitarian attempts to assist slaves,” and “the system of slavery and the visceral racism against persons of African descent upon which it depended became embedded in the U.S.’s social fabric, including Delaware’s.”
The story, of course, didn’t end with the Civil War.
“After emancipation from centuries of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction dissipated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement of African-American voters, and the system of de jure racial segregation known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws,” the resolution read. “… Delaware passed and enforced Jim Crow laws to deny the rights of African-American citizens for much of the 20th century” and “today is impacted by the lasting legacy of slavery, including ongoing tension between races and the existence of institutional racism.”
After two pages came the payoff. Delaware apologized “on behalf of the people of Delaware, for the State’s role in slavery and the wrongs committed against African-Americans and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow” and “implores all Delawareans to be tolerant and understanding of one another, with the goal of eliminating all racial bias, prejudice, and discriminatory behavior, and to remember and teach their children about the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated.”
The governor was pleased.
“Today we affirm that we refuse to forget our past,” Markell said in a statement. “We accept the responsibility of tearing down the barriers that face so many of our neighbors as a result of the abhorrent laws and practices carried out against African-Americans. But we also assume this responsibility with enthusiasm, because we know what’s possible when we give more of our people the chance to make the most of their talents. And we know that every step we take toward equality of opportunity brings us closer to the society we dream of for us and for our children.”
Advocates of the apology also thought the time was right.
“Delaware was one of the last states to abolish slavery, which is not something to be proud of here in the First State,” state Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden (D-Wilmington), who sponsored the resolution, told the News Journal. “Most of the states that had slavery have apologized for their historical role in such an inhumane practice, and I’m proud that Delaware is taking that step today.” (Delaware’s enjoys “First State” status because it was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1787.)
Little about Delaware’s apology recalled the rancor surrounding, say, South Carolina’s debate last year about the Confederate flag on the grounds of its state house. Indeed, as the resolution made its way through the Delaware legislature, opposition was almost nil. Eight other states had already apologized for slavery. Why shouldn’t the First State?
“We have people who fought in the Civil War to end slavery,” state Rep. Richard Collins (R-Millsboro), the only member of Delaware’s House to vote against the measure, said last month. “We have people who moved here after slavery ended. I don’t see how I can apologize for them.”
The signing ceremony was not widely criticized — though a few choice words could be found on the governor’s Facebook page.
“I am [not] sure who ‘we’ are Governor, but you do not speak for me on this one,” one commenter wrote. “I had nothing to do with slavery, nor did my ancestors.” Another: “Nothing but a hallow [sic] apology. Can’t believe how some people just can’t let stuff go, so far as to waste time and resources on this. What does it solve? Other than to appease weak-minded individuals that have nothing better to do than to walk up to a white man and ask him to apologize for something he didn’t do.”
The apology also brought one unexpected response — levity.
For the most part, however, it was uncontroversial that a state would say sorry for the legacy of a morally bankrupt institution established centuries ago. For some, the real question was what happens after Delaware’s mea culpa.
“It is a symbolic victory, but I’m most interested in what will happen now,” Harmon Carey, founder and executive director of the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington, who supported the apology, told the News Journal. “Because the wording of the resolution not only includes an apology for slavery but speaks for the need for us to address some of the inequities and the lingering effects of slavery, we will see if the elected officials are really sincere on what should be done.”
Yet, the final line of the resolution seemed a line drawn in the sand: “It is the intent of the General Assembly that this Joint Resolution shall not be used in, or be the basis of, any type of litigation.” The spirit of these words goes against what, at least since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark piece in the Atlantic in 2014, has been the real center of the recent debate over slavery’s legacy : reparations.
“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations,” Coates, now crowned a MacArthur genius, wrote then. “We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken.” As Clyde Ross, a victim of 1960s federal housing discrimination in Chicago, told Coates: “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now. It’s because of then.”
Coates also injected the reparations debate into the 2016 presidential race after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would not favor the compensatory payments, saying the chance they would get through Congress is “nil,” and that they are “very divisive.”
“The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as ‘divisive’ (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist,” Coates wrote last month — before, it should be noted, coming out in support of Sanders on Wednesday.
So, though Delaware may have earned goodwill in the short-term without risking lawsuits, it appears this story, already hundreds of years old, is far from over.
“Symbolism has its place, but there is a next step,” David Love of the Atlanta Black Star wrote. “After all, when damage is done there must be repair.”