New Jersey has become the first Northern state to officially apologize for slavery.
According to the New Jersey legislature’s website, the House of Representatives passed the resolution by an overwhelming 59 to 8 margin, with eight members abstaining. The resolution was carried in the Senate by a 30 to 1 margin.
Here is the resolution in full:
ASSEMBLY CONCURRENT RESOLUTION No. 270
STATE OF NEW JERSEY
DATED: JANUARY 3, 2008
The Assembly Appropriations Committee reports favorably Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 270.
This concurrent resolution issues a formal apology on behalf of the State of New Jersey for its role in sustaining and perpetuating the institution of slavery, and expresses the State’s deepest sympathies and profound regrets to the thousands of slaves and the descendents of those enslaved, who were denied life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while in bondage.
In tracing the history of slavery and its legacy of inequality from the founding of the Republic to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s, the concurrent resolution acknowledges the injustices, the broken promises and the blank checks that have never come to fruition. It calls upon the residents of this State to learn about and gain a deeper understanding of the history of slavery, the legacy of de facto and de jure segregation, and the existence of modern day slavery to ensure that these tragedies will not be forgotten and will not be repeated.
In 1846 New Jersey became the last Northern state to abolish slavery. According to the 1840 Census, the last in which slavery was legal in the state, 674 slaves lived in New Jersey, which was 0.18 percent of the state’s total population.
New Jersey is now the fifth state to officially apologize for slavery. Less than a year ago, on February 24, 2007, Virginia became the first state to express “profound regret” for its role in the institution. While slaves accounted for less than a fifth of one percent in New Jersey in 1840, more than 30 percent of Virginia's population was enslaved in 1860. When the Civil War began, Virginia was home to nearly a half million slaves.
A month after Virginia issued its apology, lawmakers in Maryland passed a very similar resolution, which expressed their “profound regret” for participating in an institution that "fostered a climate of oppression not only for slaves and their descendants but also for people of color who moved to Maryland subsequent to slavery’s abolition.” According to the 1860 Census, 87,189 slaves lived in Maryland. Slaves made up about 13 percent of the state’s population.
About two weeks later, North Carolina joined Virginia and Maryland. The legislature passed a resolution expressing the state’s “profound contrition for the official acts that sanctioned and perpetuated the denial of basic human rights and dignity to fellow humans.” According to the 1860 Census, 331,059 slaves lived in North Carolina. Slaves made up 33.4 percent of the state’s population.
On May 31, 2007, Alabama became the fourth state to express “profound regret” for “centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices.” According to the 1860 Census, 435,080 slaves lived in Alabama. Slaves made up more than 45 percent of the state’s population.
Cynics say the apologies are of little value. After all, the slaves themselves are not alive to accept an apology. One of the New Jersey legislators who voted against his state's resolution put it another way: “None of us can truly apologize for the institution because neither we, nor anyone we represent, was in anyway responsible.”
While I certainly see his point, I must repectfully disagree. Read the resolution again. Notice that the apology does not come from modern day citizens of New Jersey, nor does it even come from the state's elected representatives. Instead, the apology was issued “on behalf of the State of New Jersey.” The state sanctioned slavery, passed laws to sustain it, and benefited from the institution. Therefore, the state apologizes for its actions.
New Jersey will not be the last state to issue a formal apology for its role in America's "peculiar institution." Clearly, the momentum is building and I predict that several more state legislatures will pass similar resolutions within the year. Look for Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas to join the list very soon.
One last thing...
Let me be among the first to call for legislators in South Carolina and Mississippi to begin drafting similar resolutions. According to the 1860 Census, 402,406 slaves lived in South Carolina. In other words, slaves accounted for more than 57 percent of the state’s population. Similarly, when the Civil War began, 436,631 slaves lived in Mississippi, which was more than 55 percent of the state’s population.
Perhaps then a similar resolution from the United States Congress would be in order.