NJ lawmakers okay slavery apology

January 7, 2008 6:50:29 PM PST
New Jersey on Monday became the first Northern state to apologize for slavery.

The Assembly voted 59-8 and the Senate 29-2 to approve a resolution expressing "profound regret" for New Jersey's role in slavery. A resolution expresses the Legislature's opinion without requiring action by the governor.

"This resolution does nothing more than say New Jersey is sorry about its shameful past," said Assemblyman William Payne, D-Essex, who sponsored the measure.

The resolution offers an apology "for the wrongs inflicted by slavery and its aftereffects in the United States of America."

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."

Opponents said the apology was a meaningless gesture.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, said everyone deems slavery an abomination.

"But this was a sin that was atoned for in blood 150 years ago by the death of 650,000 Americans," Merkt said, referring to the Civil War.

He said many New Jersey families descend from immigrants who arrived after slavery was abolished.

"America does not and has never accepted the notion of collective guilt," Merkt said. "We can all, and should all, express profound sorrow about the evils of slavery, but none of us can truly apologize for the institution because neither we nor anyone we represent was in any way responsible for it."

Legislators in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have issued formal apologies for slavery.

"Making a stand for human decency, whether one generation too late or many generations too late, is never a waste of time," Payne said.

According to the resolution, New Jersey had one of the largest slave populations in the Northern colonies and was the last state in the Northeast to formally abolish slavery, not doing so until 1846.

The state didn't ratify the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery until January 1866, a month after it had already become federal law.

Payne said an apology will comfort black residents, who make up 14.5 percent of New Jersey's 8.7 million residents.

"This apology is not for deceased slaves," Payne said. "It's an apology for their descendants. It's an apology for the ages and all mankind."


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