Florida apologizes for role in slavery

TALLAHASSEE — More than 140 years after a former Florida governor described Africans as "a wild barbarian to be tamed and civilized," the Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the state's role in sanctioning slavery.

The House and Senate approved a resolution expressing "profound regret for the involuntary servitude of Africans, and calling for reconciliation among all Floridians."

There was no discussion before the unanimous voice votes, but the reading of the resolution — which described how slaves' ears were nailed to posts during whippings — brought some lawmakers, including Tampa Sen. Arthenia Joyner, to tears.

"It was painful," said Joyner, a Democrat and black caucus member. "I tried to imagine myself under those circumstances. I mean, I know how incensed I got in the '60s just knowing I couldn't get into a movie!"

Gov. Charlie Crist, affectionately dubbed "Florida's first black governor" by some black lawmakers, visited the Senate chamber to watch the vote.

In the House, Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, took the unusual step of ordering all members to their seats. And in a rare appearance, Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, sat at Rubio's side.

"This was as sincere and as meaningful an apology as could be given," Pruitt said. "It was important for the words to stand on their own."

The resolution did not address reparations. Crist appeared to be open to such efforts if slave descendancy could be established. "Certainly, it's something you'd like to be able to do," he said.

But one black lawmaker, Sen. Al Lawson, said reparations are unlikely because they are controversial and they would cost the state so much. "But I appreciate the governor's comment," said Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

As news of the vote spread Thursday, public reaction on the St. Petersburg Times' Web site, tampabay.com, varied. Some readers accused lawmakers of "wasting" time and questioned why an apology was needed when all slave owners were dead. Others said it wasn't enough; reparations are in order. Some commended lawmakers, saying they hoped it would help heal society's racial strife.

With Wednesday's vote, Florida joins five other states — Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and New Jersey — that have apologized for slavery.

62,000 slaves

Florida's apology was initiated by Sen. Tony Hill, a longtime Democratic lawmaker and head of the black caucus, who worked with Pruitt for months on the matter.

A union organizer from Jacksonville, Hill said he was inspired in part by the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which is based on the life of William Wilberforce, who fought to end the slave trade in the British Empire.

Just before the Civil War, in 1860, there were nearly 62,000 slaves in Florida, 44 percent of the state population, and their subjugation was embedded in the culture.

In a letter in 1861, former territorial governor Richard Keith Call described "persons of African descent" as "an animal, in the form of a man, possessing the greatest physical power & without one principle of his nature, one faculty of mind or feeling of heart, without spirit or pride of character, to enable him to regard slavery as a degradation."

By the time of Call's letter, slaves had been in Florida for three centuries, starting in the late 1500s, when the Spanish used them to build forts. The British imported slaves to Florida between 1763 and 1783, and the coastline was a popular dock for ships carrying slaves intended for other states.

But the practice grew significantly when Florida became a U.S. territory in the early 1800s. Plantation owners from Virginia, the Carolinas and other Southern states moved their operations — and their slaves — to Florida's cheaper land, primarily in the Panhandle.

Wednesday, Old Capitol curator John Phelps recounted some of that history for senators, reading from historic documents, including Call's letter.

He told senators about slave codes and laws from the 1820s that spelled out slave punishments, including having their ears nailed to posts while they stood for an hour and received "lashes on his or her bare back."

More apologies?

Legalized slavery ended in Florida after the Civil War with the approval of the 1868 state Constitution, but not until Wednesday did the state apologize.

"I don't care about an apology for slavery maybe offending some people," Lawson said after the Senate vote. "It helps people to know where we've been and where we need to go."

Still, some lawmakers worry the apology could open a flood of apologies to other groups, from women who previously couldn't vote to Indians whose land was taken.

"I understand the zeal and the commitment of the president (Pruitt)," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who attended a segregated high school in St. Petersburg. "But the case could be made for a whole bunch of other things. What about the Indians or the Japanese in WWII who we put in internment camps?"

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

The resolution

WHEREAS, African slavery was sanctioned and enforced through laws enacted by Florida's first Territorial Legislative Council in 1822, and

WHEREAS, the Council and its successors did, over four decades, construct a legal framework that perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms, and

WHEREAS, this legal framework included such lawful punishments as the following: "That any negro or other slave duly convicted of robbery & or burglary shall suffer death or have his or her ears nailed to posts and there stand for one hour and receive 30 lashes on his or her bare back at the discretion of the court," and

WHEREAS, in 1827, free Africans were denied the right to vote and in later years were, by law, so repressed, restricted, and harassed that by 1850 most had been driven from Florida, and

WHEREAS, African slavery was entrenched within the plantation culture of Middle Florida to such a degree that by the year 1860, 73 percent of the total population of Leon County were slaves, and

WHEREAS, there were early political leaders in Florida who advocated a vigorous defense of slavery, and

WHEREAS, the Florida Legislature has identified grave injustices inflicted upon African slaves and freemen by the state, and

WHEREAS, even though the laws permitting such injustices have been repealed, it is important that the Legislature express profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state's history and, in so doing, promote healing and reconciliation among all

Floridians, NOW, THEREFORE,

Be It Resolved by the Senate of the State of Florida, the House of Representatives Concurring:

That the Legislature expresses its profound regret for Florida's role in sanctioning and perpetuating involuntary servitude upon generations of African slaves.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Legislature calls for healing and reconciliation among all residents of the state.

Florida apologizes for role in slavery 03/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 9:56am]

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