New Jersey weighs becoming first northern U.S. state to apologize for slavery

The Associated Press
Published: January 1, 2008

TRENTON, New Jersey: New Jersey lawmakers begin considering this week a measure that would make theirs the first northern U.S. state to offer an expression of regret for slavery, an institution that one Republican lawmaker said blacks today should remember led to their becoming Americans.

The resolution, which is to be discussed in a state Assembly committee on Thursday, expresses "profound regret" for the state’s role in slavery and apologizes for the wrongs inflicted by slavery in the U.S. If approved, it would make New Jersey the fifth U.S. state to offer a similar apology or expression of regret for the institution that served as a catalyst for the U.S. Civil War, the only war to be fought on American soil.

New Jersey is viewed largely as a progressive state that has already approved same sex unions and recently became the first state in over 40 years to abolish the death penalty. But ahead of the slavery resolution’s consideration, Republican lawmakers spoke out against the bid, with one saying it would be meaningless.

"Who living today is guilty of slave holding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?" asked Republican Assemblyman Richard Merkt. "And who living today is a former slave and thus capable of accepting the apology? So how is a real apology even remotely possible, much less meaningful, given the long absence of both oppressor and victim?"

Another Republican, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, said Democrats should start by asking their own party to apologize, noting the historic Republican opposition to slavery.

"But, on a current note, if slavery was the price that a modern American’s ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one’s knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid," Carroll said.

Carroll said while his ancestors came from Ireland around the 1850s, fleeing a potato famine he said was worsened by British indifference, he bore the British no ill will.

"Far from holding it against the modern British, I delight in the cruelty of their forebearers. Without same, I might be hanging around in Inisfree," Carroll said, referencing an Irish island.

History "is not something for which anyone can — or should be expected to — atone," said Carroll.

"To the extent that America — or New Jersey — ever owed any kind of debt to anyone, that debt was more than repaid through the blood and suffering of 650,000 federal soldiers who died or were wounded during the war provoked by slavery," Carroll said, referring to the Union Army’s losses in the Civil War, which pitted the North against the Confederate South between 1861-1865.

"No one today need feel the slightest guilt, as no one today participated in the wrong."

Four Southern states have so far offered varying apologies for slavery — Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. A similar effort in Georgia, another member of the old Confederacy, has stalled because of objections raised by the state Senate’s black Democratic leader who argued that such an apology was insulting and woefully inadequate for the suffering caused by slavery.

New Jersey’s measure, which expresses "profound regret for the state’s role in slavery and apologizes for the wrongs inflicted by slavery and its aftereffects in the United States of America," is set for a Thursday hearing by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It has not received Senate consideration, but must be adopted by Tuesday when the legislative session expires. The measure does not require gubernatorial action.

It states that in New Jersey, "the vestiges of slavery are ever before African-American citizens, from the overt racism of hate groups to the subtle racism encountered when requesting health care, transacting business, buying a home, seeking quality public education and college admission, and enduring pretextual traffic stops and other indignities."

Democratic Assemblyman William Payne, a sponsor of the resolution, argued that if the states that most supported slavery can proffer apologies, then so too can New Jersey.

"This is not too much to ask of the state of New Jersey," said Payne. "All that is being requested of New Jersey is to say three simple words: We are sorry."

Payne said an apology would comfort blacks who comprise 14.5 percent of the state’s 8.7 million residents, and would set an example for other states.

"Slavery was an evil and shameful practice and New Jersey should profess remorse for its past involvement," he said.

According to the proposal, New Jersey had one of the largest slave populations in the northern colonies, was the last northern state to free slaves and was the last northeast state to abolish slavery, doing so in 1846. It also allowed authorities to return runaway slaves to their owners.

Merkt, explaining his opposition to the measure, said many residents descend from families who came to America after the Civil War and have no link to slave holding.

"Today’s residents of New Jersey, even those who can trace their ancestry back to either slaves or slave holders, bear no collective guilt or responsibility for unjust events in which they personally played no role," Merkt said.

No state has offered reparations to slave descendants, and New Jersey’s measure states that the resolution cannot be used in litigation.

Copyright © 2008 the International Herald Tribune

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