Following the lead of lawmakers in neighboring Virginia, the Senate unanimously backed a resolution acknowledging its "profound contrition for the official acts that sanctioned and perpetuated the denial of basic human rights and dignity to fellow humans."
"This is a way to reflect upon this and express our understanding and our regret for official actions of our state," said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Democrat and the bill's primary sponsor.
Such an apology, Rand added, will help us "to try to be better children of God and better representatives of all the people of this state."
The resolution recounts a long history of discrimination against North Carolina's black population, from the first slaves in the British colony of "Carolina" in 1669 through the Civil War and then Jim Crow laws that promoted inequality into the mid-1900s.
"The state went out of its way to deny its people the right to life and liberty," said Democratic Sen. Tony Foriest, who is black and recalled during the Senate's debate the segregation he experienced as a child.
The North Carolina House would have to approve the measure for it to be formalized. A similar resolution is pending in state House, which adjourned for the Easter holiday weekend on Thursday without taking any action.
Black members of the Senate said they were pleased to see the resolution pass, but added that lawmakers also need to help improve the quality of life of blacks who still suffer from the effects of slavery and discrimination. They called for improvements to the state's education system and giving black-owned businesses more access to state contracts.
"This is a noble gesture but I urge you, don't let it end here," said Democratic Sen. Larry Shaw. "There's plenty of work to be done."
Several white senators recalled their own links to slavery. Democratic Sen. Bill Purcell said his grandfather had owned slaves. Republican Sen. Jim Jacumin mentioned his ancestors' own suffering due to religious bias.
"Any conflict or wrongdoing can never have a closure until there is an apology or reconciliation has occurred," Jacumin said.
Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed their resolution apologizing for slavery in February. Maryland lawmakers approved their own apology for slavery last week, and lawmakers in Georgia and Missouri are considering similar legislation.
North Carolina Democratic Party leaders apologized in January for instigating a bloody race riot in Wilmington in 1898, which left dozens of blacks dead and helped the party gain political power.