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House of Delegates passes resolution acknowledging state's part in slavery

The Baltimore Sun

With an expression of "profound regret," Maryland lawmakers have acknowledged the state's participation in slavery and the decades of racial discrimination that stemmed from it.

With no debate, and to a smattering of applause, the House of Delegates voted 130-6 yesterday to approve the resolution. Last month, the Senate passed a similar measure.

The passage of both versions follows decades of wrangling over the question, and the Virginia legislature's recent acknowledgement of that state's role in slavery. The resolutions stop short of an outright apology, which has raised the question of reparations in other states.

"I think it was long overdue and I am pleased that the state of Maryland has taken this historic step," said Del. Michael L. Vaughn, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the House resolution.

The House measure states in part: "Slavery's legacy has afflicted the citizens of our state down to the present. ... The state of Maryland expresses profound regret for the role that Maryland played in instituting and maintaining slavery and for the discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

Maryland's move comes as a handful of states nationwide wrestle with the question of atoning for the ills of slavery. This year, Georgia, Missouri and Delaware are among the states considering similar measures.

On the federal level, Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, has introduced a resolution for a national apology, after years of failed attempts by others in Congress. Since 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, has unsuccessfully proposed a measure to study the issue of reparations.

And in the city of Annapolis, an alderman recently proposed a resolution seeking atonement for "centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices."

Lawmakers approved their versions in the historic State House, which is located just several blocks from Annapolis' City Dock, the main entry port of slaves and other cargo for the upper Chesapeake Bay. Today, a memorial stands to Alex Haley and his Gambian ancestor Kunta Kinte, who is believed to have arrived in Annapolis before being sold into slavery, the epic story of which is chronicled Haley's novel Roots.

Slavery existed from about the time of Maryland's inception as an English colony in 1632 until Nov. 1, 1864, when the institution was abolished with ratification of the state constitution.

Some lawmakers said the 200-year legacy of African enslavement requires much more than a simple "I'm sorry."

Sen. Nathaniel Exum, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the resolution, said he was thrilled at its passage in the House. He sponsored a similar measure last year that passed in the Senate, but stalled in the House.

He said he hoped the apology is a start to racial reconciliation throughout the state.

"I hope this leads to some dialogue, because that's what we really need," he said. "This is just a start."

Those who voted against the resolution said they don't oppose such discussions but don't back a full-blown resolution expressing guilt.

Six legislators opposed the bill, while two did not vote and three were absent.

"My family was in Ireland fighting the British against their oppression," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, who voted against the resolution. "I don't believe I should be in a position to apologize for something that other people did."

McDonough said he thought the nation had adequately apologized for slavery's ills with bloodshed from the Civil War, legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and "billions in aid" in the form of social programs for minorities.

"I don't think apologies solve anything," he said. "They're just feel-good superficial measures."

Annapolis Alderman Samuel E. Shropshire, who earlier this month sponsored a resolution apologizing for the city's role in slavery, said the House's approval of the resolution made him "proud to be a citizen of the state of Maryland."

"They did the right thing and it's a great day in the state of Maryland that the state is finally apologizing for its involvement in slavery," Shropshire said, adding that he hopes the state resolution bolsters his local effort. "Our development was brought about on the backs of African-American men women and children who toiled and worked under that system. Now it's up to us to redouble our efforts to rid ourselves of lasting vestiges of slavery and segregation."

But the apology itself might be seen as an empty gesture unless it is followed by tangible efforts at racial healing, said Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. In its simplest form an apology is significant, he said, but it will not cure decades of discrimination.

"You can't say that 'sorry' is meaningless in human relations," he said. "But if it's only 'I'm sorry,' then I think it pales with respect to what is actually needed in terms of reaching some kind of equality."

Walters said Virginia's passage of a similar resolution helped Maryland lawmakers pass their measure this year. But Maryland's, he said, appears more "pure."

Virginia's resolution was approved as the state prepared to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown colony, a moment in history inextricably linked to the importation of African slave labor.

"Virginia had a motive that it couldn't avoid," he said.

Other experts think resolutions such as Maryland's could force the nation to come to terms with an ugly past - through reparations.

Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said a handful of cities have passed measures to investigate companies with ties to slavery. Wachovia Corp. acknowledged ties to slavery in 2005.

"An apology is the first step," he said. "People have been working on this for decades or more trying to get an acknowledgement of the wrong of slavery."

Vaughn said dealing with the vestiges of slavery should be the state's next step.

"I think slavery left a legacy of racism and hatred that are alive today," he said. "I think this measure will spark some much-needed dialogue throughout the state of Maryland."

Sun reporter Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

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