Never Too Late to Apologize for Slavery

By Whitfield, John H. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Never Too Late to Apologize for Slavery


Whitfield, John H., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When you take lunch at Kiener Plaza downtown, converse with an associate on the east steps of the "Old Courthouse" or take a leisurely stroll down the cobblestoned riverfront you might not be aware of its presence, but its history is there: slavery. Or more precisely, American slavery. A critical distinction in the history of involuntary servitude.

American slavery is a gaping wound from which moral, spiritual and economic spirit has been lost even unto this present generation. Slavery, as American as baseball or the Model-T Ford, was an institution whose pervasive influence has fueled political and social movements, through various manifestations, for more than a century after its demise. American slavery is that area of the American experience that receives the least focus and favor in textbooks and curriculum. Yet it reminds us that George Washington did more than cross the Delaware, and Thomas Jefferson fathered more than the Declaration of Independence.

Early this summer we were faced with the real possibility of an apology, a purging of the national spirit regarding this historic tragedy, from the nation's chief executive. The momentum for the formal apology seems to have lagged. It shouldn't. Whether genuine or symbolic, a verbal atonement of this once codified and accepted national practice annunciated by the president of the United States would be significantly therapeutic. Pundits argue, however, that such a pronouncement would unduly, and unjustifiably lend support to proponents of reparations for American slavery. On the contrary, an official statement to that effect is well overdue. Webster's Dictionary defines "reparations" as "the act of making amends for a wrong." Which event in the panorama of American history qualifies more for such an act? In the early days of the Civil War another American president, under more severe circumstances, faced a similar dilemma regarding a public declaration and the consequences on an already severed Union. Would the border slave states, particularly the state where he was born, Kentucky, secede from the Union if his planned announcement was delivered?

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