N.Y.’s Apology for Slavery Is Readied for ‘Juneteenth’

Jacob Gershman, New York Sun, June 13, 2007

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Following on the heels of other states that have recently apologized or expressed regret over slavery, the Legislature is expected to pass its own apology bill before it breaks for the summer next week—in time to commemorate the June 19, or “Juneteenth,” anniversary marking the day in 1865 when federal troops liberated the last slaves in Texas.

Sponsors of the legislation said the Democrat-led Assembly would act first in passing the bill and would be followed by the Republican-led Senate, some of whose members have expressed concern that offering such an apology could give a boost to supporters of slavery reparations.

The Assembly this year introduced a separate bill that would create a commission to study reparations, a measure that has gotten less support and most likely won’t pass the chamber this session, lawmakers said.

The apology bill would amend Chapter 137 of the laws of 1817 relating to slavery, statutes that set in motion the eventual emancipation of slaves in New York in 1827, to declare that the “government of the state of New York formally apologizes for its role in sanctioning and perpetuating slavery and its vestiges.”

It also “acknowledges that slavery, the transatlantic and the domestic slave trade were appalling tragedies in the history of New York state not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the humanity of the enslaved person.”

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The history of slavery in New York, a story of human rights horrors mingling with triumphs, is less well known than in other states, where slavery was more firmly entrenched. In 2005, the New-York Historical Society helped fill in the gaps of knowledge with its high-profile exhibit “Slavery and the Making of New York.”

The legislation “may be symbolic, but the reason that New York City is the financial capital of the world is because of its involvement in the slave trade,” the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Keith Wright, a representative of Harlem who is African-American, said.

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“By the 1740s, 20% of New York’s inhabitants were slaves and two out of every five households had at least one. Repressive laws were written to control them but the enslaved conspired, rebelled, and ran away relentlessly,” according to the Web site of the Historical Society. After the start of the American Revolution, New York City’s population of free blacks soared, although slavery remained an important part of the city’s economy until it was finally abolished in 1827.

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