America, the land of the free, was once also the largest slaveholding nation on Earth. On Wednesday, Delaware officially acknowledged its role in perpetuating slavery – and joined eight other states in apologizing for its actions.
Both chambers of the state’s legislature passed a joint resolution officially apologizing in January, a move that met almost no opposition on its way to the governor’s desk.
The joint resolution, about three pages in length, piles on the guilt.
"Whereas," began a list of injustices against enslaved African Americans, "during the course of the infamous Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries, millions of Africans were forcibly abducted to and enslaved in the New World, and millions more died during passage."
It apologized for the culture of devaluation that slavery instilled:
"WHEREAS, to prime Africans for slavery, the fundamental values of Africans were shattered," one of the grievances reads. "They were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage."
The list stretched on through the abolishment of slavery and to modern times. "WHEREAS, African-Americans continue to suffer from the complex interplay between slavery and Jim Crow," it continued, "long after both systems were formally abolished, through enormous damage and loss, including the loss of human dignity, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of opportunity."
The resolution then climaxed in an apology: "The General Assembly …apologizes, on behalf of the people of Delaware, for the State’s role in slavery and the wrongs committed against African-Americans and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow."
Delaware’s apology may seem insignificant; after all, the resolution does nothing in the way of taking actionable steps to reduce prejudice against today’s African Americans, and the resolution’s last line explicitly forbids its use in litigation. But given Delaware’s history – it was one of the last three states to continue practicing slavery, abolishing the practice only before Kentucky and Mississippi – apologizing may still hold some healing power.
"An apology would not kill that hatred," wrote the New York Times’s Timothy Egan in an essay advocating for a national apology. "But it would ripple, positively, in ways that may be felt for years."
The first state to formally apologize for slavery was Virginia in 2007, closely followed by Maryland, North Carolina, and Alabama that same year.
The US House of Representatives passed a formal national apology in 2008, and the US Senate passed a similar resolution a year later. But neither resolution made it to a president’s desk, because each one was foiled in the opposite house of Congress. But that hasn’t stopped advocates from hoping.
- Read this piece in the Root asking why the United States has not been able to formally apologize for slavery.
- In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates famously argued that the United States should go further than apology – it should pay the descendants of enslaved African Americans reparations.