Delaware inches closer to slavery apology

 Governor Markell speaks Sunday morning at the Bethe AME Church in Wilmington. (photo courtesy Gov. staff)

Governor Markell speaks Sunday morning at the Bethe AME Church in Wilmington. (photo courtesy Gov. staff)

Gov. Jack Markell throws his support behind apology resolution during Sunday speech at a Wilmington church.

“For generations our country denied and actively contested a basic fact of humanity,” said Governor Markell. “Nothing about the color of one’s skin affects that persons innate rights to freedom and dignity.”

Markell spoke Sunday morning at Wilmington’s Bethel AME Church. His comments coincided with the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. Markell announced his support for a legislative resolution formally apologizing for slavery and highlighted the ongoing affects slavery has had on society.

“Our history of discrimination and degradation and deprivation is a direct cause of many of the challenges we face 150 years after the ratification of the 13th amendment,” Markell said. “Being black in Delaware and being black in America means your likelihood of success and prosperity is less than if you are white.”

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The impact of slavery is demonstrated in the income gap between whites and blacks which is the same today as it was in 1970, Markell said. “It reverberates in schools where the achievement gap between white and black students persists and in overcrowded prisons where the number of African American inmates tops 80 percent in some cities.”

State Senator Margaret Rose Henry is one of the primary sponsors on the joint resolution apologizing for slavery. She welcomed Markell’s support, but said the apology needs to come from the full body of the General Assembly. “The resolution is important because it’s more than just a governor, it’s really all the people that we elect to office throughout the state who represent various communities [who] would also have a chance to be a part of this apology,” Henry said. “We thought this was far more meaningful than just having the governor stand up and say, ‘I personally apologize for slavery.’”

Henry and State Rep. Stephanie Bolden have been circulating the resolution for other lawmakers to sign on as sponsors. She expects to introduce the measure when the General Assembly returns to work in Dover in January.

Delaware’s history is quite mixed when it comes to the issue of slavery. While the First State remained in the Union during the Civil War, slavery was legal in Delaware. The southern half of the state aligned more closely with the southern states due in part to its major agricultural industry. There were even some from southern Delaware who left the state to join the war fight on the Confederate side.

Northern Delaware on the other hand was more closely aligned with the anti-slavery free states. Wilmington was the final stop before freedom for slaves escaping the south via the Underground Railroad. Wilmington Quaker Thomas Garrett worked with Harriet Tubman to get slaves to freedom. Peter Spencer founded the August Quarterly religious celebration in Wilmington that drew slaves from all over. The Big Quarterly as it was sometimes known was used to plan future escapes. The gathering is still celebrated every August.

In October, Gov. Markell pardoned another abolitionist 170 years after he was caught helping a slave escape Delaware in 1847. Samuel Burris, a free black man and conductor of the Underground Railroad, was found guilty for his actions, he was ordered to be sold into slavery for seven years, but instead abolitionists bought his freedom. Markell said his posthumous pardon was “an opportunity to make right what was a historic wrong.” 

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