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Slavery.

The Baltimore Sun

Germany's president apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust.

Australians expressed regret for mistreating the Aborigine people.

The United States asked Japanese-Americans to forgive the country for forcing them into internment camps during World War II.

But despite repeated attempts, this country's elected officials have yet to formally apologize for 200 years of enslaving blacks and supporting the practice.

This year Maryland, along with Virginia and Missouri, could become the first officially sorry states.

"It's long past due for me," says Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden. "As African-Americans we believe we are entitled to some courtesy and consideration, some acknowledgement that we have to serve in this awful capacity as second-class citizens."

Although some people don't see the point in seeking pardon for their ancestors' wrongdoings and others consider a resolution - particularly an apology without reparations - an empty gesture, others say such a statement, particularly coming from elected leaders who weren't pressured into it, would be both therapeutic and appropriate.

"I think it would be a very significant forward march for our state," says Stefan Goodwin, a former professor at Morgan State University who led a state commission that studied slavery's legacy in Maryland.

"It's not going to help one homeless person find a home and it's not going to stop one crime. But I think it will give people who feel especially targeted by slavery a sense that those in power empathize with their suffering and regret it."

The apology movement comes at a time that Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland history professor who has written a number of books on slavery, calls "a real renaissance" for the topic.

"It's getting more interest than anytime since the Civil War," he says, pointing to slavery documentaries on HBO and public television, movies like Manderlay, Amistad, and Beloved and even the recent opening of Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

"Many things that people thought were solved turned out not to be solved. Many of the solutions put in play to deal with race like affirmative action have been taken off the table for political reasons. ... All of that creates a sense of unease about race in American society and it manifests itself by turning back to this issue."

Berlin thinks a political apology for slavery would logically follow the artistic treatments of it and further demonstrate the country's ongoing effort to reconcile the horror and grapple with the racial unease left in its wake.

The desire for contrition is actually global, says Elazar Barkan, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs and founding director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at Austria's Salzburg Seminar.

The most memorable example, in his mind, is German President Roman Herzog's emotional apology a decade ago to the Jewish people for crimes committed by the Nazis. Herzog made the address at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, wearing Jewish mourning clothes.

While apologies can stem either from the demands of victims or the guilt of perpetrators, each ends with commemoration of a past mistake and, Barkan says, the chance for a public conversation.

"You can't undo the past, but you can own up to it," the professor says. "We do it to make a declaration that we know what was wrong and we know what is right - an apology is step one in the process of coming to terms with one's tainted past."

Sen. Nathaniel Exum, sponsor of Maryland's apology resolution, doesn't think he's asking for much.

Just two little words, really, a statement from Maryland's leaders that he believes could help ease a legacy of pain and bad feelings. "We're sorry," the Prince George's County Democrat would like them to say - for the state's role in slavery.

"Has anyone ever apologized for an atrocity perpetrated on black folks in this country?" the senator asks. "The state has a connection to it. Many people are living off of the benefits of it.

"And no one is saying they're sorry."

Exum's resolution, just a few lines long, would have Maryland's legislature express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery. Borrowing lines from the country's founding documents, it would also reaffirm the state's commitment to "the formation of a more perfect union among its citizens regardless of color, creed or race" and "the principle that all people are equal and equally endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Though the senator says he would rather have pushed for reparations, a tangible way to compensate African-Americans for slavery's damages, he says he was being practical. Legislation with money attached to it could hardly stand a chance, he felt, when the General Assembly has given apology bills, which are all but free, the cold shoulder a number of times.

Just last year, although the Senate passed Exum's resolution unanimously, it died in a House committee.

Baltimore County Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr.'s much less delicate apology bill also failed to gain traction in the House.

Burns would have required the governor to make the apology - on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. His bill also made clear that the apology was for Maryland's "long-held silence in the face of slavery."

"They don't want it, they don't want to even debate it," Burns says. "If we're ever gonna move on the race issue, there has to be an apology for slavery. ... If we're not willing to say that, heck, it will happen again."

Burns, who has also proposed a bill that would expand Black History Month to two months, blames the House leadership for sitting on the various apology attempts. Speaker Michael E. Busch, however, says he supports the concept but no one has done much to make the legislation a priority.

"I think the vast majority of Americans are embarrassed by this and as a country, it's one of our greatest shortcomings," the speaker says. "I've done nothing to encumber" the legislation.

House Minority Leader Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, who represents Southern Maryland, was much more coy about how he felt about an apology. After pointing out that the Republican Party was founded to eliminate slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was its first president, he refused to say whether he would support Exum's bill.

"There's an old saying around here," he said by way of explanation. "A card laid is a card played. With this particular legislation, I prefer to keep my cards face down."

Asked about Exum's bill recently, Montgomery County Del. Herman L. Taylor II, the vice chairman of the black caucus, hadn't heard of it. But with a trip to Africa fresh on his mind, particularly the memory of a slave trade re-enactment he saw there, Taylor said an apology from Maryland would be quite relevant.

"This is not forgotten," he said of slavery. "It is deeply a part of everything we are each and every day."

Virginia's legislators have already been debating their apology bill, which, like Maryland's, would have the state expressing "profound regret" for slavery.

One Virginia legislator's skeptical comments made national headlines.

"I personally think that our black citizens should get over it," said Del. Frank D. Hargrove, igniting something of a firestorm. "By golly, we're living in 2007."

Hargrove ended up supporting the measure, which awaits Senate approval.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. has been asking since 1989 for a federal commission to study slavery reparations. Ohio Rep. Tony P. Hall's attempt to coax a national slavery apology also drowned in controversy before Hall resigned from Congress in 2002 to take a position at the United Nations.

Nationally, the opposition to an apology hovers on extremes. On the one hand, some fear it would be too big a statement, something that would lay the groundwork for demands for reparations. Then there are those who say an apology would do nothing to fix slavery's contemporary legacy of wealth, health care and education disparity.

Yet historians insist the value of the words alone could be substantive.

"It does allow African-Americans to get recognition of their suffering and their ancestors' suffering and that's something," Barkan says. "I actually think engagement of moral questions of the past improves the present. It's not just an escape from the real problems of today."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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