ANNAPOLIS – A Baltimore County lawmaker is proposing legislation that would require Maryland’s governor to apologize for the state’s historical involvement in slavery, despite repeated defeats of similar proposals in the House of Delegates over the last six years.
Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat, said his legislation would be the first step in eliminating the lingering effects of slavery.
“Before we can ever address it substantively, the majority has to admit that we were done wrongly in slavery. That’s the beginning of the healing process,” he said. “What my bill does is ask the governor to make that apology in light of all the injustices we received and marks we yet bear of discrimination and indecency and indignity.”
The bill would require whoever is Maryland’s governor in September 2006 to make the apology. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s current term expires in January 2007. Henry P. Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said that the administration has never taken a position any of the apology bills.
Slavery began in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region in the mid-1600s and continued until it was outlawed by the state constitution in 1864. Led by Annapolis, Maryland’s ports imported more slaves than any other state except Virginia.
The governor’s apology would fall on Sept. 22, 2006, the 144th anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and less than two months before the general election in which Democrats will try to unseat Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in a generation.
“There is no political agenda here at all,” Burns said. “If I all of a sudden jumped up and put it in now, then you could make that claim. But, I put it in under Democratic administrations.”
He acknowledged that the manner in which the bill is being handled by Democratic leadership in the House has been different in this election year. Burns said that the bill will be sent to a “real committee” for the first time, rather than the House Rules Committee.
“That (Rules Committee) is the death knell for all bills that nobody wants to deal with,” he said.
“We’re going to give Delegate Burns a hearing,” said the House speaker, Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
But despite the more favorable committee assignment, there are signs that support for Burns’ apology bill has been waning among rank-and-file Democrats.
When Burns first introduced the bill in 2000, 31 delegates signed on as cosponsors. In 2004, there were sixteen. Since then, Burns has been the sole backer.
“Slavery happened 400 years ago,” said Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore. “Why should there be an apology now?”
Several other delegates, including African Americans, agreed with Anderson, saying the proposed apology would do nothing to repair the damage done by slavery.
“I think it’s a beginning, it lays a foundation for us to begin to build on. I’m not saying that once you apologize all our problems will go away,” Burns said. “But at least you’ll say, ‘Hey, I recognize that we did this to you and it should not have happened.'” There has also been a joint resolution introduced by Sen. Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George’s, that would ask Maryland’s congressional delegation to support federal legislation that would create a national committee to study reparations for slavery.