Slavery apology advances in New Jersey

January 3, 2008 12:41:01 PM PST
New Jersey moved Thursday toward becoming the first Northern state to apologize for slavery under a measure approved by a legislative committee.

"This bill does nothing more than say New Jersey is sorry for its shameful past," said Assemblyman William Payne, D-Essex, sponsor of the proposal that would express "profound regret" for New Jersey's role in slavery.

The apology - proposed as a resolution used to express the Legislature's opinion without requiring action by the governor - is set for a final vote Monday in the Assembly, though the Senate hasn't scheduled action on it.

Legislators in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have issued formal apologies for slavery. Payne said the Garden state should follow suit.

"It's a disgraceful part of our state's history," Payne said. "The state should stop trying to shove its deplorable past embrace of slavery into the closet and join the other states that have had the decency and courage to apologize."

According to the proposal, 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 slaves, unlike other new arrivals to America, "weren't welcomed by the Statue of Liberty." He showed pictures depicting suffering slaves jammed into ship holds.

"Like it or not, New Jersey had a role in all of this," Payne said. "There is much for the state to atone for."

The measure was backed by Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization For Progress, a Newark group that advocates against poverty and racism.

"It is the right thing to do," Hamm said. "It is always the right thing to do to recognize when a wrong has been done and then take steps to correct that injustice."

Republicans questioned if an apology would be relevant. The resolution passed 10-1, with several Republicans abstaining and Republican Assemblyman Richard Merkt voting against it.

"A resolution apologizing for slavery strikes me as an ill-advised and divisive proposal," said Merkt, R-Morris. "New Jersey's legislature should focus its time and attention on solving today's pressing crises, rather than waste legislative resources on an evil that was stamped out in blood almost a century and a half ago."

The proposed resolution 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."

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."

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

"This is not a Republican issue," Payne said. "This is not a Democratic issue. This is not a black issue. This is not a white issue. This is an issue for humanity."