The state of Delaware – which refused to abolish slavery until forced to do so – on Feb. 10 officially apologized.
Surrounded by numerous lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, black and white, Gov. Jack Markell signed House Joint Resolution 10, acknowledging the state’s enslavement of blacks and persecution under Jim Crow laws.
The legislation, which made Delaware the ninth former slave state to apologize for holding African Americans in involuntary servitude, came 151 years after passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
But Delaware did not ratify the amendment for another 36 years.
Passed in Congress only after intense lobbying by President Abraham Lincoln, the 13th Amendment was rejected by the Delaware General Assembly a week later. Although it became a part of the Constitution in December 1865, the General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until February 1901 under Gov. John Hunn.
Markell, who has long supported the apology, hoped his signature might help right some of the wrongs of the past, wrongs that still echo today.
“It is not enough to know simply that slavery existed,” Markell said. “This egregious sin of prior generations is not merely a fact of our state’s past. We can’t separate slavery from the challenges that we face today in pursuit of ensuring Delawareans of all races have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and realize their potential.”
A frank and candid acknowledgement is “the only way to understand our present and to take full responsibility for our future,” he said.
The legacy of slavery and discriminatory Jim Crow laws affect Delawareans today, and it is the challenge of today’s generations, black and white, working together, to overcome those lingering reminders, he added.
Jim Crow is the name given to state laws and traditions that promoted racial segregation after the Civil War. Such laws and customs separated whites and blacks socially and economically for almost a century.
The people of Delaware have made “uneven but substantial” progress in overcoming past wrongs, Markell said. He cited the contributions of black Delawareans including attorney Louis Redding, community leaders such as Herman Holloway and Littleton Mitchell and artists such as Clifford Brown, graduated from what is now Delaware State University.
There still is work to do, Markell said.
“Signing this resolution is an important step, but if anyone thinks it’s the last step, then we’re nowhere,” he said. Opportunities exist for everyone, but what’s necessary is to ensure everyone, especially today’s children, can take advantage of those opportunities, he said.
“We can celebrate this morning the fact the state is taking this important step, but what’s more important, honestly, is what kind of celebration we can have in five, 10, 15 years; there will be another governor standing up here, looking back on the tangible steps we have taken to make sure that all of our people can achieve their real potential,” he said.
Legislators from both parties gathered around the signing table and Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington North, said the apology was “long, long overdue.”
“It helps ease some of the pain,” Potter said.
Sen. Ernesto Lopez, R-Lewes, the first Latino in the Senate, called it “a very special day.”
Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle, said he had been subject to Jim Crow during his lifetime. He reminded the crowd that it took people of every race to end that.
“Slavery and Jim Crow was not abolished just by black people,” he said. “It took the efforts of white, black and brown working together.”
Passing HJR 10 also took the cooperation of many legislators, though it did not receive unanimous support.
“It could have been divisive, but it wasn’t,” Johnson said. “The reason it wasn’t divisive was because we had the support of most of the colleagues in the General Assembly. I thank them for their efforts.”
Sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington East, the resolution was introduced in the House Jan. 8 and passed with 39 of the 40 members present voting in favor; one House member was absent and another did not vote. It was approved by the Senate a week later, with 18 of the 21 senators in favor.
The signing at the Public Archives called attention to a proclamation of February as African American History Month and an exhibit detailing the 125-year history of Delaware State University. DSU began in May 1891 as the State College for Colored Students.
A copy of HJR 10 will be on display at the Archives through Monday, Feb. 29. For more information about DSU’s 125th anniversary exhibit, visit archives.delaware.gov.