Florida may apologize for slavery

TALLAHASSEE — More than 140 years after slavery thrived in Florida, some lawmakers from both parties believe now is time for the state Legislature to apologize.

Democratic Sen. Tony Hill, working since last year with Republican Senate President Ken Pruitt, will propose a resolution in which the Legislature formally apologizes for the history of slavery in this state.

"Black folks have come so far in this country, to come from slavery to a Democratic nominee for president," said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. He filed legislation seeking a similar apology but vowed to work for Hill's version. "This apology is the right thing to do."

Exact language isn't yet available, and it's not clear if the House leadership will sign on to the plan.

But Pruitt's spokeswoman confirmed his interest, and House Speaker Marco Rubio said he generally supports the idea.

"Expressions of regret are symbolic, but they are important," Rubio said.

Whether the proposal will encounter opposition is unclear. None has emerged so far, and politically it's not necessarily prudent to oppose such a measure.

The proposal echoes similar moves by other states, including New Jersey, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. The New Jersey Assembly in January passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

Hill's resolution would be the first of its kind in Florida, and the fact that Pruitt has been involved could boost its chances of passing.

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

Hill said he and Pruitt, who works in real estate in Port St. Lucie, have discussed the film, which Hill called moving.

Slavery in Florida dates back to the late 1500s, when the Spanish used slaves to build forts. Centuries later, slave use moved to the state's agriculture economy.

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.

The practice grew after Florida became a U.S. territory in the early 1800s and 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.

By 1860, there were nearly 62,000 slaves — 44 percent of the state population.

"It's time for us to move forward," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, a member of the black caucus. "And the only way for us to do that is to say, 'We made a mistake.' Until we do that, the racial divide in Florida remains strong."

Hill's plan was the second race-relations issue to come to the fore as the annual legislative session opened Tuesday.

Rubio, in his opening remarks, told lawmakers he wants to address "the tragic tale of what is happening to young African-American males."

"It is intolerable and unacceptable that an entire segment of our population has come to believe that the American dream is not available to them," Rubio said. "And we can never be the nation God intended us to be so long as this tragedy persists."

Meanwhile, House Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, wants to create a Confederate flag license plate honoring "Confederate heritage." He told the St. Petersburg Times he just wants to honor a part of history — much like honoring Martin Luther King Jr. by naming a street after him.

Researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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Proposal draws mixed reactions

The Buzz, the St. Petersburg Times' political blog, posted news of Sen. Tony Hill's plan for an apology for slavery Tuesday morning, drawing comments from dozens of readers. Among them:

• "The whole thing is absurd. My Florida ancestors owned hundreds of slaves," wrote a blogger calling himself Jim Johnson. "Today I have biracial grandchildren who descend from these same slaveowners. I suppose they can apologize to themselves."

• From an anonymous blogger: "I am constantly amazed by the "I didn't own no slaves" crowd, who seem to forget that this nation is a COMMUNITY with a HISTORY. … Do you celebrate July 4? Why? You weren't there and didn't do anything to risk your lives and property to declare independence. … Well, folks, slavery is/was as much a part of our history as July 4."

• "This might be a good time for these senators to apologize to their constituents for being wholly ineffective in Tallahassee," from unsigned blogger.

• "I don't care if an apology is made by the Legislature as long as the state doesn't have to get the checkbook out," from unsigned blogger.

Florida may apologize for slavery 03/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:26am]

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