Virginia state legislator Frank D. Hargrove has rekindled discussion of apologies for slavery. Hargrove told a Charlottesville newspaper that Blacks “should get over” slavery. In reference to a proposed apology from the state Legislature, Hargrove asked, “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?” Later, in a speech on the floor of the House of Delegates, in a building designed by Thomas Jefferson, Hargrove said “nobody in this legislature had anything to do” with slavery.
As happens so frequently in politics, the movement for apology now has gotten support from the most unlikely of sources. Instead of putting an end to the debate, Hargrove has fueled it. He has captured a central strand in thinking about our country’s legacy of slavery and the decades of racial discrimination and violence that followed it. And discussion of Hargrove’s comments is giving more credibility to the apology movement, which has until recently had few adherents. Many White people — indeed a majority — oppose apologies, to say nothing of the even more radical idea of reparations. According to a Mobile Register poll in 2002, only 24 percent of White Alabamians support the idea of an apology for slavery.
Hargrove’s sentiments are understandable: No one alive in America today enslaved other people. And Hargrove’s suggestion that descendants of slaves focus on the future rather than the past (though phrased contemptuously as an instruction to “get over it”) has a distinguished lineage in Black thought. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, emphasized racial self-help.
Just because the people who enslaved others are dead does not mean that there is nothing to address. The sins of racism continue to affect our nation — White and Black. The limited educational and vocational opportunities of the Jim Crow era have left a chasm in Black and White wealth and even current income. One-third of Black children, for instance, live in poverty. About 12 percent of non-Hispanic White children live in poverty.
The Virginia House of Delegates is one appropriate body to address the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. As early as the 17th century, the Virginia Legislature passed comprehensive laws to govern the institution of slavery. In the 19th century, in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Legislature contemplated a plan to gradually abolish slavery. But it failed to pass. Professor Thomas R. Dew of the College of William and Mary reviewed the sentiments behind the Legislature’s actions. He concluded that slavery was not evil, but instead a blessing to the slaves. “A merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe than the Negro slave of the United States,” Dew wrote. The Virginia legislature, then, was part of the problem.
An apology, obviously, would do nothing to ease the pain suffered by long-dead people. But apologies are as much about the present as the past. In offering an apology, the Legislature would honor the memory of those who were enslaved. It would also acknowledge to Virginia’s residents that the Legislature understands that the sins of our country’s past burden us still today. And it would help correct the ignorance of many Americans about our past.
Lest one think that the Virginia Legislature forgets about the past, one might remember that they today provide funding for the preservation of the graves of Confederate soldiers. Preservation of cemeteries is appropriate and it is a sign of Virginia’s humanity that it spends money on the preservation of graves. Virginia law acts in many ways to preserve graves. But what is important here is that Virginia is acting now to preserve the memory of the long-dead soldiers who fought in a war designed to preserve slavery.
People in Virginia are talking now, remembering the multiple connections of the sins of the past to the present. For that we can thank Mr. Hargrove. Perhaps in the near future we will also talk about the connections of other great institutions in Virginia to the institution of slavery, like Randolph Macon College, the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia and William and Mary. Talk has begun; there’s no telling where it will lead.
Dr. Alfred L. Brophy is professor of law at the University of Alabama and author of “Reparations Pro and Con.”
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