Delaware formally apologizes for slavery: empty gesture or step toward healing?

A formal apology for slavery is not meaningless rhetoric, say Delaware's African-American community. To us, it is important. 

Jason Minto/The Wilmington News-Journal/AP
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell delivers his final State of the State address in the House Chambers of Legislative Hall, Jan. 21, 2016, in Dover, Del.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) is expected to sign a formal resolution Wednesday, apologizing for the state’s role in US slavery.

“Delaware today is impacted by the lasting legacy of slavery, including ongoing tension between races and the existence of institutional racism,” states the resolution. “It is important for Delaware to make a formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow, so that it can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all of its citizens." 

The General Assembly passed the legislation in January as an important step toward addressing the state’s continued racial inequalities.

“This is a powerful symbolic gesture,” bill sponsor Rep. Stephanie Bolden (D), told The Wilmington News Journal. “We were one of the last states to end slavery, but we don’t have to be one of the last to recognize the terrible damage it did.”

Delaware was one of the last three states to abolish slavery, followed only by Kentucky and Mississippi.

“It’s essential that we publicly and candidly and wholly recognize the everlasting damage of those sins,” Governor Markell told parishioners at the Bethel American Methodist Episcopal Church on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, “damage that reverberates to this day in a country were 150 years after the establishment of slavery and decades after the official end of the Jim Crow era, being black in Delaware and being black in America means your likelihood of prosperity and success is less than if you are white.” 

Eight other states have already issued formal apologies for slavery. Virginia was the first state in 2007 to acknowledge “with profound regret” the enslavement of Africans, followed by Maryland, North Carolina, and Alabama that same year. New Jersey and Florida followed in 2008 and Tennessee and Connecticut in 2009. 

Markell’s announcement in December came after repeated requests by activists. Harmon Carey, leader of the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington, says Markell ignored two of his requests before he asked a third time in July after the Charleston church shootings. 

“I thought that one way for us to respond – ‘us’ meaning Delawareans – was for the governor to issue an official apology for slavery,” says Mr. Carey. 

But some say real change requires a formal apology on the federal level. 

The House attempted to pass a national apology for slavery in 2008, and the Senate tried to pass a resolution in 2009. But neither of the federal formal apologies reached the president’s desk because both proposals failed in the other house.  

While conservatives may say an apology is pointless and liberals may say reparation is needed, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing still has value, says The New York Time’s Timothy Egan.

“An apology would not kill that hatred, but it would ripple, positively, in ways that may be felt for years,” says Mr. Egan. “Words of contrition – a formal acknowledgement of a grievous wrong by a great nation – have a power all their own.” 

But even a formal apology at the state level can have a healing effect, says Carney.

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

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