Slave trade elicits call for apology

Issue goes before Annapolis council

March 11, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,[sun reporter]

Annapolis, one of the Chesapeake region's earliest slave ports, may become one of the first cities in a fledgling movement in which governments apologize for their role in the slave trade.

Alderman Samuel Shropshire said he plans to introduce to the city council tomorrow a resolution calling for atonement for "centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices."

"It's not like we are trying to dig up the past; the past is always there, it's a fact and a reality," Shropshire said. "All I'm asking is that we look at it and deal with it and pray for reconciliation and move on."

Virginia's legislature issued a formal apology last month, and lawmakers in Maryland, Missouri and Georgia are considering similar ones. A Tennessee congressman has gathered 36 co-sponsors for a bill that, if passed, would bring a national apology.

Shropshire's measure would set aside a week of reflection for schools, civic organization and religious congregations to discuss the city's slave history.

He said his resolution would "continue to bring about racial healing in our city and state."

The text, which draws heavily on the initial version in Virginia, asserts that atonement for slavery could assuage "the perpetual pain, distrust, and bitterness of many African-Americans."

He said he has lined up the support of three council members and has set up meetings with other aldermen, hoping for a unanimous vote.

That might prove difficult, given that the nine-member council includes Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who has expressed reservations about Shropshire's resolution.

She said she would be inclined to abstain from voting on the measure as it is currently written.

"Resolutions become political acts that in and of themselves do not do anything," she said. "We need not react to the political positive of the day."

Moyer, who commissioned a portrait of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman for the city council chamber, said she is much keener on public forums as a way to deal with the legacy of slavery.

In Annapolis, slavery has had a prominent space in public discourse, largely through the efforts of Leonard A. Blackshear.

In September 2004, he led a group of blacks and whites in a "slavery reconciliation walk" through the city.

And at City Dock, there is a memorial to Alex Haley and Kunta Kinte, the Gambian the author claimed as an ancestor in his historical novel Roots.

Annapolis was a prime port of entry for slaves and other cargo for the upper Chesapeake Bay, beginning in the late 17th century. Prior to that, Maryland and Virginia led the way in codifying slavery by permanently linking color and caste, a connection that not even a Christian baptism could erase.

Slavery dictated the state's culture, enveloping even the lowest rungs of whites, who could read local papers -- including The Sun-- and learn how to reap a reward for capturing slaves.

In Annapolis, with a class of free blacks that was almost a quarter of the black population, slavery was indeed peculiar -- slaves were more mobile, yet still property.

Caroline Hammond, born in 1844 to a free father and enslaved mother, said as much when interviewed at her Baltimore home in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers' Project. "Mr. Davidson was good to his slaves, treating them with every consideration that he could, with the exception of freeing them," she said, referring to her owner, who was among Annapolis' elite.

Shropshire, who is white, said a trip to Gambia in June and research into his family background moved him to propose the resolution.

He found that his ancestors owned 97 slaves in Rome, Ga.

A few years ago he tried to initiate a dialogue with a black woman who shared his last name and Southern roots.

It was an awkward exchange, Shropshire said, but some say that sort of fumbling toward meaning and connection is exactly what is needed.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee unanimously approved the proposed Maryland resolution Thursday, and it has been in the House Rules Committee for the past two weeks.

No vote is scheduled for the full chamber. Ira Berlin, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park, said such legislation can push dialogue along.

"I think these attempts are often awkward and easily dismissed as empty, politically correct gestures," he said. "But, if we take it seriously, it can be an opportunity to do some significant grappling toward confronting who we are."

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

To read the full text of the Annapolis city council resolution, go to www.baltimoresun.com/apology.

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