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.

9 Responses to “Florida apologizes for slavery”

  1. jan says:

    “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.”

    yes…and well….

    “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.” ”

    May I please re-submit the questions?

    1) What good does this do, besides create more controversary?

    2) When is an apology accepted as sincere, and/or good enough?

    Thank you, James


  2. James says:

    Welcome back, Jan!

    On your first question, if you’re referring to the apology, I believe the good comes from acknowledging the past and reaffirming our rejection of practices like slavery. While this may seem obvious, the fact is that many blacks in this country still do not feel as though this is the message they’re getting from society.

    The best illustration of this, I think, are the statements from blacks after Florida’s apology, saying clearly that this is the first time they’ve heard this, that they didn’t believe most whites felt that way, and that it makes a real difference to them.

    Rather than quote from one of those reactions, let me broaden the conversation beyond Florida, with this reaction from someone who watched my cousin discuss his book, Inheriting the Trade, on C-SPAN2:

    “I just watched Tom Dewolf on C-Span and he may have freed me from a great deal of bitterness. On the question of slavery and its aftermath, I had grown to think all white people were shameless on this subject. Dewolf has left me with hope that there may be a few whites who see the errors of their ancestors. More than that, I can concentrate on how my bitterness and frustration also add to the problem.”

    Here’s someone who acknowledges that he, at least, needs to make sure not to hold onto bitterness or frustration over the past … but who says that it’s also important to know that whites do reject what their society did to blacks. Given how strongly most whites openly identify with the positive aspects of this country’s history, simply keeping quiet about the sins of the past is hardly a repudiation … especially in the context of enduring division and disadvantage over race today.

    As for controversy, I’m not sure exactly what controversy an apology should or could create. Whether or not an apology is worthwhile, it seems harmless to me for the Florida state legislature to acknowledge its history and to offer its regrets for actions which harmed people in the past. Especially since those actions reverberate to this day, to the detriment of some of Florida’s current citizens.

    To the extent that an apology nevertheless creates controversy in some circles, this may suggest that either the nature of the apology needs to be re-thought, or else there are some citizens who aren’t as familiar with the past, or with the nature of the apology, as they should be. Either way, this is a type of controversy which I suspect is quite healthy for our society.

    On your second question, Jan, I’m not sure it matters whether a legislature’s expression of regret is accepted as sincere or not (which is different, of course, from being sincere). But I do know that there have been many positive responses to the various state apologies in the past year, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

    As for whether an apology is “good enough” or not, I would have to ask, good enough for what? What goal do you want to see achieved, that you’re hoping (or doubting) an apology will achieve?

  3. jan says:

    “..this is the first time they’ve heard this, ‘

    this is the first time they have heard this???????????

    please….this is ridiculas……….yes..it is

  4. jan says:

    it seems to me that you are trying to perpetrate white guilt…is that not in itself, racisit?

    where the hell have YOU been???


  5. jan says:

    “..that they didn’t believe most whites felt that way…”….so the remorse was not taken seriously??

    As I said……….how much is enough?

    You seem to believe that if we are remorse enough…….all will be ok…..I submit the that the more we are remorse…the more it will be used against us to further their agenda…………..what say you Sir?



  6. James says:

    this is the first time they have heard this???????????

    Yes, Jan, for many blacks, it is the first time they’ve heard anything like an expression of regret for slavery and discrimination.

    Now, I realize that may sound odd to you. It surprised me at first, too, and it certainly doesn’t apply to many of my friends and colleagues. But I’ve seen too many people respond this way to apologies from state legislatures, as well as to expressions of regret or sorrow in our family’s film, to believe that this is an isolated phenomenon.

    I think that I, at least, may have underestimated the extent to which much of the black community in this country often feels marginalized, and as if whites have only grudgingly stopped racist behaviors. Just consider that after slavery, there was another century of blatant, legal discrimination, which for many former slaves and their descendants differed little from slavery, except in name. How else to interpret that century, except as a grudging acceptance that slavery couldn’t be openly practiced any more, without any regret over what had happened?

    it seems to me that you are trying to perpetrate white guilt

    Can you explain why you feel this way, Jan? I’ve said clearly on this blog that I don’t feel any guilt for actions that aren’t my own, and that I don’t believe anyone else should, either. So I certainly don’t want to encourage any other perception.

  7. James says:

    so the remorse was not taken seriously??

    What remorse, Jan? Are you saying that you felt remorse? That you’ve expressed that to blacks in the past? That you believe most blacks have heard such expressions, and if so, where?

    This is a society which still bears the signs of slavery and discrimination everywhere you look, and in which racism still persists (even if far less commonly, and much less blatantly, than in the past). We’re barely out of the era of official, legal discrimination, which is part of the personal experience of many people alive today.

    If many people look at this society and aren’t convinced that most whites reject that past, I’m not prepared to say that they’re unreasonable to ask for clarity. The fact that I’m young enough to have grown up after that history, and have never been a part of those actions or those racist attitudes, doesn’t mean that I can safely assume everyone is clear how I feel. There’s too much history, and too much that lingers in our society today, to assume that everyone’s on the same page.

    submit the that the more we are remorse…the more it will be used against us to further their agenda

    “Their” agenda, Jan? Who are “they,” and what do you fear “their” agenda is?

    I’m not going to refuse to express my sympathy, or my regrets about our nation’s history, out of fear that someone might seize on those expressions to further an agenda I might not agree with.

    Just how does that work, anyway? Let’s forget about whether such expressions can somehow force another agenda. If an expression of remorse, as you put it, will allow people to advance their agenda, then doesn’t that mean such remorse hadn’t been expressed previously? With respect, Jan, doesn’t this undermine your entire argument?

  8. Jan says:

    Just so happens, that I am not the same Jan. It seems to me that there is never enough apology, remorse, or regret for an inflicted immoral behavior, (regardless of whether it is legal at the time), to satisfy the injury to the soul of a victim or their descendents. How can “enough” be evaluated? How can compensation be appreciated as satisfactory when a sea of hurt, loss, and pain is expressed in the personal history of a family from generation to generation; spoken by a beloved parent or grandparent, even if only with a desire to inspire their children to a better life. The only answer I have ever found is that the apology is met with a corresponding act of forgiveness. Men’s laws can be changed in an attempt to correct past injustice, but immoral acts that violate the law of God can only be addressed by the highest law of God…..loving forgiveness.

  9. Dain says:

    James, I have finally joined the discussion! And a very interesting one at that. Apology and forgiveness are such complicated and volatile issues.

    Two thoughts, which I have heard from many black people, though they clearly do not reflect the emotions of all. One is that part of the value of an apology, or expression of regret, for many is that it is an ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of the history.

    The other is that what is really needed is not an apology, but a change of heart and behavior. An apology without a change of heart is worthless, cynical and a step in the wrong direction. But a change of heart without an apology is of great value. Both an apology AND a change of heart is best option.

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