Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lawmakers hope for passage of slavery apology

Chances ‘good’ that resolution will pass, House speaker says

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Prince George’s lawmakers are hopeful that a state resolution that ‘‘expresses profound regret” for Maryland’s role in slavery will pass smoothly through the House of Delegates, after the Senate unanimously approved the measure without debate Friday.

‘‘It’s a piece of legislation that’s long overdue,” said County Councilman Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8), of Temple Hills. ‘‘We have to consider the fact that it is a time that we must start reflecting on ... an apology is in order.”

Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Dist. 24) of Capitol Heights has introduced the resolution for the past two years. He says it will be a testament to what the state believes in.

‘‘It has never been done, not in this state,” he said.

Del. Michael Vaughn (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville, who introduced the resolution in the House, said slavery’s legacy can be seen in modern racism and hate crimes, and that the ‘‘starting point of any healing is an apology.”

Prince George’s County has a deep-rooted history of slavery. As part of a region with an agriculture-based economy, slavery here was a way of life before the Civil War.

‘‘It was accepted,” said Edward Day, museum director at the Riversdale House, a former plantation home in Riversdale Park built between 1801 and 1807. ‘‘There were people that knew it was immoral, but I think that in the Southern states it was accepted.”

The Riversdale House owners, George Calvert and his wife Rosalie, used Riversdale as their home base and operated other tobacco plantation on properties throughout the county. Part of the University of Maryland’s College Park campus was even built on a section of the 2,000-acre Riversdale property.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said the chances of the slavery resolution passing this year are ‘‘good,” even though the measure stalled in the House last year after passing through the Senate.

Virginia’s legislature approved a similar resolution last month. Knotts said that Virginia and Maryland could together ‘‘set the tone” for the way the rest of the region reflects on slavery.

But such measures have stirred controversy. Fort Washington Rev. L. Jerome Fowler, whose great-great uncle was born a slave on Bowie’s Three Sisters plantation, said the resolution was probably not necessary. Fowler’s great-great uncle, Henry Vinton Plummer, eventually became the U.S. Army’s first black chaplain.

‘‘None of us had anything to do with [slavery] ... I don’t know how they can apologize for it,” Fowler said. ‘‘As long as we have an attitude, a racial prejudice, an apology’s not going to change things.”

E-mail Judson Berger at jberger@gazette.net.