New Jersey Lawmakers May Apologize for Slavery

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New Jersey could become the first Northern state to apologize for slavery under a measure due for a legislative committee hearing this week.

"This is not too much to ask of the state of New Jersey," said Assemblyman William Payne, sponsor of the proposal. "All that is being requested of New Jersey is to say three simple words: 'We are sorry.'"

Legislators in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have issued formal apologies for slavery.

"If former Confederate states can take action like this, why can't a Northeast state like New Jersey?" asked Payne, a Democrat.

According to the proposal, New Jersey had one of the largest slave populations in the Northern colonies and was the last state in the Northeast to formally abolish slavery, not doing so until 1846. The state didn't ratify the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery until January 1866, weeks after it became law, having rejected ratification in 1865.

Payne's measure is set for a hearing Thursday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It hasn't received Senate consideration. The legislative session expires Tuesday.

Some Republican lawmakers wonder if it would be relevant.

"Who living today is guilty of slave holding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?" asked Assemblyman Richard Merkt. "And who living today is a former slave and thus capable of accepting the apology? So how is a real apology even remotely possible, much less meaningful, given the long absence of both oppressor and victim?"

Payne said an apology would comfort black residents, who make up 14.5 percent of New Jersey's 8.7 million residents.

It's proposed as a resolution, used to express the Legislature's opinion without requiring action by the governor.

No state has offered reparations to slave descendants, and New Jersey's measure says the resolution cannot be used in litigation.