15 January 2008

Officially Sorry?

New Jersey legislators are debating whether or not the state should officially apologize for slavery. This is an interesting topic for a number of reasons. Firstly, New Jersey - along with New York - was the first northern colony to begin the practice of slavery, in 1626. By 1790 blacks accounted for 7.7% of New Jersey's population - more than any other northern state.

The state "officially" abolished slavery numerous times. The 1804 "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" provided that females born of slave parents after July 4 of that year would be free when they turned 21. The act contained a provision whereby slaveowners could free their slave children who would then be turned over to the local poor houses with $3 a month support from the state. The slaveowners could then have the children placed back in their OWN households and collect the $3! Would it surprise you that 40% of New Jersey's 1809 budget was spent on the one line item labeled "abandoned blacks"?

New Jersey again abolished slavery in 1846 - the last northern state to do so - at which time two-thirds of all northern slaves lived in the state. But at the start of the Civil War in 1861, New Jersey still had 18 black "apprentices for life". The federal census called these people what they were - slaves.

I believe the state should apologize for its role in the institution of slavery. Not for creating it, or practicing it, but for not being at the forefront of abolitionist movements and in fact being the last northern state to outlaw slavery. New Jersey, a nanny state that has lately embraced everything from cell-phone bans to eminent domain, was once so concerned with "property rights" in the 18th and 19th centuries that they forgot about "human rights", and missed every opportunity to be a leader, or even a follower, in ending this abhorrent practice.

For that, New Jersey needs to apologize - officially.

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