Lawmaker Wants U.S. to Apologize for Role in Slavery

Article excerpt

Rep. Tony P. Hall is discovering the smallest words are some times the hardest to say as he seeks to reintroduce a bill "apologizing" for the U.S. government's role in slavery.

In 1619, the first slave stepped onto Virginia soil, changing American history and altering the lives of millions of Africans who would otherwise never have lived in America.

Now, almost 400 years later, a number of people have an apology in the works. Mr. Hall, an Ohio Democrat, will propose a bill in the next two months stating that Congress apologizes to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves until 1865.

"This apology is a way to begin to have closure to a problem that has been around for a very long time," says Mr. Hall, who is white. "True, we do not have slaves today and the apology would not be precedent-setting, but this would be a very simple thing to do. It would be an important step to promote healing."

Not everyone thinks it's a good idea. "The proposed bill does not even address slavery in other countries," says Mohammed Athie, a former diplomat from Mauritania, West Africa.

"At the same time we are talking about this apology, there are people in other countries, Arab countries, like Sudan, that are living under the conditions of slavery. To me, it is nothing but a political move."

Walter E. Williams, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, says people can only apologize for what they are personally responsible for.

"If your car is stolen and I apologize, it doesn't mean much because I was not the one who did it," Mr. Williams, who is black, says.

"I can't think of a better way to cause racial conflict than by constantly drumming away at and illuminating the problem. I think fair play goes a long way. Today's blacks clearly benefited from slavery. My wealth is far greater and I have far greater liberties than if my ancestors had remained in Africa."

Others note that a similar apology may be owed by descendants of the black slave catchers who took the slaves to the African ports for sale to English and American slavers.

This is not the first time Mr. Hall has introduced such a bill. The bill's original debut two years ago created a debate without getting an official hearing.

"Negative feedback came from both sides of the House floor," Mr. Hall says. "I am wanting to reintroduce this bill again because I feel it's the right thing to do. Slavery and racial reconciliation are still major issues. We start dialogue and we start healing."

Mr. Hall, along with Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, went on a five-day trip to West Africa last December at the request of Benin President Mathieu Kerekou to discuss slavery's history.

The event attracted Ghanaian President Jerry John Rawlings and former diplomats from France and Ghana, and organizations and churches from the United States and the Caribbean. Called the Leaders' Conference on Reconciliation and Development, it was held in Cotonou, Benin.

During the second half of the 16th century, Portuguese were the first to land on the coast of Dahomey, now Benin. For more than two centuries, this location was a slave port. Millions of Africans passed from there into slavery.

"Everybody born in the United States, African-American, is a descendant of a slave," says Charles J. …