The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama just marked the end of slavery. Delaware may apologize for its role in it.

President Obama spoke marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which formally ended slavery in the U.S. in 1865. (Video: Associated Press)

President Obama commemorated the 150th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery on Wednesday, just days after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) said he wants his state to formally apologize for its role in the practice.

“The question of slavery was never simply about civil rights. It was about the meaning of America, the kind of country we wanted to be,” Obama said in a Capitol Hill speech commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the practice a century and a half ago.

On Sunday, Markell announced his support for an effort to issue a formal apology for the state’s role in the slave trade.

“We must publicly and candidly acknowledge the lasting damage of past sins — damage that continues to reverberate more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery,” Markell said Sunday. The states ratified the amendment on Dec. 6, 1865.

Markell threw his support behind a joint resolution that would serve as an official apology and is expected to be submitted to the state legislature early next year.

“The resolution being introduced today will do more than write a footnote into the history books that describe the atrocious conditions that some Delawareans inflicted upon people of African descent,” Markell said alongside state legislators, community advocates and local parishioners at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington.

[The U.S. has 35,000 museums. Why is only one about slavery?]

Delaware joins at least eight other states in issuing such an apology.

Virginia became the first when its legislature passed a resolution on Feb. 24, 2007, acknowledging “with profound regret” the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans.

“On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown, the General Assembly call upon the people of the Commonwealth to express acknowledgment and thanksgiving for the contributions of Native Americans and African Americans to the Commonwealth and this nation, and to the propagation of the ideals of liberty, justice, and democracy,” the resolution read.

Maryland did the same the next month, followed by North Carolina that April and Alabama that June. New Jersey and Florida approved official apologies in 2008, followed by Tennessee and Connecticut the next year.

[Is America ready to deal with slavery, or just continue to miss the point?]

Markell’s Sunday announcement comes in response to advocates’ repeated attempts to get him to issue such a statement.

Harmon Carey, head of the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington, said in July that the governor had ignored two earlier requests for such an apology, but he was hopeful his third attempt would get a hearing because it came after the killing of nine black churchgoers at a South Carolina prayer meeting.

Relatively few Delaware families owned slaves: In 1860, it ranked 15th among states by share of slave-owning families relative to all free households, according to census data.

But the First State was not a free state, and Carey told the News Journal in July that a formal apology would have a healing effect.

“It would say to me that my government cares enough about African American people to issue a proclamation,” he told the newspaper.

State lawmakers in Georgia and Mississippi have embarked on similar efforts to seek such apologies, while Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (Vt.) said in an interview this summer that the nation has “got to apologize for slavery.”

Both the House and the Senate separately passed resolutions apologizing for slavery — in 2008 and 2009, respectively — but never has one resolution passed both chambers and been approved by the president.

In 1998, during a six-nation tour of Africa, President Bill Clinton “offered a broad expression of contrition for what he called his country’s shameful legacy in Africa, including America’s role in the slave trade and its support for repressive anti-communist dictators during the Cold War.” But it was, The Washington Post noted at the time, “not strictly speaking an apology.”

This post, originally published Dec. 7, has been updated. 

Read more:

In search of slave clothes: A museum director’s hunt for a painful symbol

Slavery is a tough role, hard sell at Colonial Williamsburg

‘Born In Slavery’: The last American slaves

‘Workers’ or slaves? Textbook maker backtracks after mother’s online complaint.

Texas officials: Schools should teach that slavery was ‘side issue’ to Civil War