- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2000

Rep. Tony P. Hall is discovering the smallest words are some times the hardest to say as he seeks to reintroduce a bill "apologizing" for the U.S. government's role in slavery.

In 1619, the first slave stepped onto Virginia soil, changing American history and altering the lives of millions of Africans who would otherwise never have lived in America.

Now, almost 400 years later, a number of people have an apology in the works. Mr. Hall, an Ohio Democrat, will propose a bill in the next two months stating that Congress apologizes to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves until 1865.

"This apology is a way to begin to have closure to a problem that has been around for a very long time," says Mr. Hall, who is white. "True, we do not have slaves today and the apology would not be precedent-setting, but this would be a very simple thing to do. It would be an important step to promote healing."

Not everyone thinks it's a good idea. "The proposed bill does not even address slavery in other countries," says Mohammed Athie, a former diplomat from Mauritania, West Africa.

"At the same time we are talking about this apology, there are people in other countries, Arab countries, like Sudan, that are living under the conditions of slavery. To me, it is nothing but a political move."

Walter E. Williams, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, says people can only apologize for what they are personally responsible for.

"If your car is stolen and I apologize, it doesn't mean much because I was not the one who did it," Mr. Williams, who is black, says.

"I can't think of a better way to cause racial conflict than by constantly drumming away at and illuminating the problem. I think fair play goes a long way. Today's blacks clearly benefited from slavery. My wealth is far greater and I have far greater liberties than if my ancestors had remained in Africa."

Others note that a similar apology may be owed by descendants of the black slave catchers who took the slaves to the African ports for sale to English and American slavers.

This is not the first time Mr. Hall has introduced such a bill. The bill's original debut two years ago created a debate without getting an official hearing.

"Negative feedback came from both sides of the House floor," Mr. Hall says. "I am wanting to reintroduce this bill again because I feel it's the right thing to do. Slavery and racial reconciliation are still major issues. We start dialogue and we start healing."

Mr. Hall, along with Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, went on a five-day trip to West Africa last December at the request of Benin President Mathieu Kerekou to discuss slavery's history.

The event attracted Ghanaian President Jerry John Rawlings and former diplomats from France and Ghana, and organizations and churches from the United States and the Caribbean. Called the Leaders' Conference on Reconciliation and Development, it was held in Cotonou, Benin.

During the second half of the 16th century, Portuguese were the first to land on the coast of Dahomey, now Benin. For more than two centuries, this location was a slave port. Millions of Africans passed from there into slavery.

"Everybody born in the United States, African-American, is a descendant of a slave," says Charles J. Ogletree Jr., professor of law at Harvard. "So many African-Americans do not know their history because slavery destroyed their ability to trace where they came from. It also destroyed the connection to their language."

J. Gunnar Olson, founder and chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and adviser and roving ambassador to Mr. Kerekou, says he hopes the conference will improve race relations.

"The whole point is that three parties whites, blacks and Africans came together before the nation and the Lord and asked one another, 'Will you forgive us?' followed by the answer 'We forgive you,' " Mr. Olson says.

The conference cost of $1 million was funded by the Benin government. Those who went on the trip paid their own $1,500 in travel costs.

"I think that the people who paid for this trip out of their own pockets underscores the significance of this event for those people who wanted to go," says Kelly Wright, a news anchor with the Fox TV affiliate in Portsmouth, Va., who covered the conference. "This conference in Benin totally addressed the problems we have in our own country as far as racial reconciliation is concerned."

Mr. Kerekou planned the conference as a way to promote a healing of the past through an official apology and acknowledgment of wrongdoing on both the part of Africans and whites.

"We dealt with our own feelings and emotions," says David Perrin, a bishop at the Church of the Great Commission in Camp Springs, Md. "We dealt with the whole issue from a biblical standpoint. Africans and blacks accepted having a role in slavery, many for the first time."

"It is like the story of Joseph in the Bible," says Mr. Perrin. "He said, 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.' That verse is commonly associated with the African-American people returning home to their heritage."

"The reason for this conference was brought about through deep convictions of the president," Mr. Olson says. "He did not want to enter the new millennium with this unresolved guilt hanging over him."

The trip to Benin is not the first time Americans have met to ask forgiveness for slavery. This past February in Jamestown, Va., Texas Republican Party Chairman Susan Weddington apologized to blacks for the tensions between them and the party. But it was a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation decreed freedom for slaves during the Civil War in the Confederate states not under his control. Slaves in several slave states loyal to the Union were not included in the proclamation.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hall believes that an apology would be the simplest thing to do and the best place to start.

"I believe that if people really think about it and dig into the issue they will find it is a good place to start," he says.

"Our government counted slaves as three-fifths of a person," he says. (This was done to prevent Southern states from gaining a disproportionate share of congressional seats by counting those who could not vote.)

"An apology is only the first step. It is not an end, it is not an answer, it is just a beginning."

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