Thu 27 Mar, 2008
Tags: Apologies, Joe Feagin, Legislation, Slavery, States
Florida’s legislature passed a non-binding resolution yesterday expressing its “profound regret for Florida’s role in sanctioning and perpetuating involuntary servitude upon generations of African slaves.”
Florida thus joins six other states, from Alabama to New Jersey, which have passed such resolutions since early last year.
The resolution also expresses the legislature’s regret for laws invoking brutal treatment for blacks, both free and slave. These laws including lashings and the nailing of ears to posts, for offenses such as perjury or burglary, and limiting the movement of free blacks.
The terms of the resolution are similar to those of measures passed in other states. Notably, the resolution expresses “profound regret,” rather than using the word “apology.” Furthermore, regret is expressed only on behalf of the legislature itself; the legislature does not purport to apologize on behalf of the state or its people. Finally, resolution also does not mention the possibility of reparations, instead urging that the resolution “promote healing and reconciliation among all Floridians.”
Unlike most recent state apologies, however, the resolution does not mention the long, post-Civil War history of state-sanctioned violence and blatant discrimination against blacks. This shortcoming was noted in at least one newspaper story by Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M whose work focuses on issues of race and who was formerly at the University of Florida. Feagin points out that there are legislators today who were alive during the period of legal segregation, lending that period added relevance (and sensitivity).
Slavery persisted in Florida for three centuries, starting in 1565 under Spanish control and expanding significantly after Florida became a U.S. territory. In the years immediately prior to the U.S. Civil War, black slaves amounted to 44% of the state’s population. For more than 150 years, until the 1930s, Florida lead the South in the number of lynchings per capita.
The resolution was passed by unanimous voice votes, first by Florida’s Senate, and then by the House. Lawmakers declined to debate the resolution in either chamber, instead listening quietly to brief presentations of the state’s history of slavery by a Capitol historian, while some lawmakers wept. In addition to detailing demographics and laws, he cited an 1861 letter in which Florida’s former governor referred to Africans as “an animal, in the form of a man,” utterly unable “to regard slavery as a degradation.” In rare gestures in the House, the House speaker first ordered all members to their seats, and the Senate president sat by the speaker’s side during the House proceedings.
State Sen. Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville) was the resolution’s lead sponsor, having worked for months to arrange passage of the legislation. Hill said that he was inspired partly by commemorations of the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade.
Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist (R), attended the vote in the Senate and said afterwards, “Florida is sorry for the past transgressions and unfair treatment and, in some cases, just gross inequity” towards blacks in the state.
Crist also indicated that he would be willing to consider reparations for slavery. “I’m always willing to consider anything that is reasonable, fair and just,” he said in response to a question about reparations, adding “certainly it’s something you’d like to be able to do,” at least “if we can determine descendacy.” One black lawmaker, Sen. Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee), responded later that reparations are unlikely, being controversial and highly costly, but that “I appreciate the governor’s comment.”
Update: Predictably, Florida’s apology and Crist’s openness to reparations have generated a tidal wave of commentary in the blogosphere, including both praise and angry reactions. For examples, see here and here.