View Mobile Site

Slave apology debate in Virginia exposes old wounds for blacks, whites

RICHMOND, Va. — When an 80-year-old white Virginia legislator recently came out against a resolution apologizing for slavery because blacks, he said, should ‘‘get over it,’’ he ignited a storm of protests from black leaders.
    The furor has illustrated once more that when the issue is race, the past is never far from the surface in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and a city where one of the main boulevards is lined with grand statues of Southern heroes such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.
    Two black legislators — Sen. Henry L. Marsh III and Delegate Donald McEachin — have proposed that the General Assembly ‘‘acknowledge with contrition’’ the state’s role in slavery. McEachin said an apology would promote healing and ease the sadness felt by many descendants of slaves.
    The resolution has yet to be put to a vote. But Delegate Frank Hargrove, the white Republican who spoke out against an apology, said there is no point in issuing one, because no slaves or slave owners are alive today.
    Black leaders exchanged heated words with Hargrove. In a confrontation in Hargrove’s office, King Salim Khalfani, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Virginia, told the legislator his comments were insensitive ‘‘when you haven’t walked in our shoes.’’
    ‘‘You’re damned right they owe an apology,’’ Khalfani said in an interview later. ‘‘They need to repair the damage.’’
    Debates over whether to celebrate or suppress Virginia’s history continue divide a state where about a fifth of the residents are black.
    In 1999, blacks complained that murals newly put up along the Richmond floodwall depicted Lee and other whites but no black leaders. Three years earlier, the city was split by plans to add a statue of black Richmond-born tennis star Arthur Ashe along Monument Avenue, near statues of Confederate figures.
    Ultimately, murals of black leaders were added to the floodwall and the Ashe statue went up.
    At the same time, Virginia has made considerable political progress.
    Voters made Democrat L. Douglas Wilder the nation’s first elected black governor in 1989, and in 2004, elected him mayor of Richmond, a majority-black city.
    The 140-member state legislature has 17 black members; the state recently created a scholarship program for blacks denied an education in the 1950s when some Virginia school systems closed down rather than integrate. The state also plans to build a civil rights memorial near the Capitol.
    Some blacks link pressing community ills like low graduation rates to a defeatist mentality born during slavery and perpetuated by segregation.
    ‘‘As a result of all of these things, African-Americans were set back,’’ said Wilder, whose grandparents were slaves. ‘‘They still have not caught up.’’
    Wilder said he supports an apology but does not believe it would do much to solve economic and educational disparities.
    It is not a new idea. Former Ohio Rep. Tony Hall, who is white, proposed a federal slavery apology in 1997 and again in 2000.
    ‘‘I got a tremendous amount of hate mail, but at the same time, I also got a lot of mail and people stopping me that were really, really thankful,’’ said Hall, a Democrat. ‘‘There’s still a lot of discrimination in our country. We need to be about healing it.’’
    Frank Earnest, head of the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, agreed with Hargrove that modern whites have no reason to apologize.
    ‘‘It worsens the tensions,’’ he said. ‘‘Not every black person in this country is a descendant of slaves. Not every white person in this country is a descendant of people who owned slaves.’’
    Michael Massie of the National Leadership Network of Black Conservatives questioned the need for an apology given by people who never owned slaves, to people who never were slaves. And he said an apology would not cure poverty or broken families.
    ‘‘We see black leaders on every level,’’ Massie said. ‘‘America has apologized.’’

Interested in viewing premium content?

A subscription is required before viewing this article and other premium content.

Already a registered member and have a subscription?

If you have already purchased a subscription, please log in to view the full article.

Are you registered, but do not have a subscription?

If you are a registed user and would like to purchase a subscription, log in to view a list of available subscriptions.

Interested in becoming a registered member and purchasing a subscription?

Join our community today by registering for a FREE account. Once you have registered for a FREE account, click SUBSCRIBE NOW to purchase access to premium content.

Membership Benefits

  • Instant access to creating Blogs, Photo Albums, and Event listings.
  • Email alerts with the latest news.
  • Access to commenting on articles.

Please wait ...