GOREE ISLAND, Senegal — President Bush called slavery “one of the greatest crimes of history” yesterday and acknowledged that its legacy still vexes the United States in a somber speech at this former slave port.
Mr. Bush said he came to Africa “mindful of past wrongs,” yet determined to eradicate the lingering vestiges of racism.
“My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy, and it is not over,” the president said after touring a site where millions of slaves were sold to the United States and other countries. “For racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation.
“And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times,” he said at a small gathering of African dignitaries sweltering in the sun. “But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all.”
At the end of the day, Mr. Bush boarded Air Force One and flew to South Africa, the second stop on his five-nation African journey, where he is scheduled to hold talks today wih President Thabo Mbeki.
The extraordinary speech yesterday included an indictment of the United States’ slaveholding past, as well as a tribute to blacks and whites who fought to outlaw the practice. Mr. Bush, a self-described born-again Christian, even chided his religious forbears who profited from slavery.
“Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice,” he said at the start of his five-day, five-nation tour of Africa.
“Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience.”
He added, “A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions.”
It was the second time an American president came to Goree Island to wrestle with the ghosts of slavery. President Clinton made the trip in 1998, after a period of public deliberation about whether he should apologize for slavery. After a backlash, he contented himself with asserting that slavery had been wrong.
Mr. Bush, by contrast, never considered issuing an apology. Yet the president, a conservative Republican who lost 90 percent of the black vote to Al Gore in 2000, was unforgiving of early Americans who owned slaves.
“Some have said we should not judge their failures by the standards of a later time,” the president said. “Yet in every time, there were men and women who clearly saw this sin and called it by name.
“We can fairly judge the past by the standards of President John Adams, who called slavery an evil of colossal magnitude,” he added. “There was a time in my country’s history when one in every seven human beings was the property of another.”
Mr. Bush arrived on the 45-acre island, the westernmost point of the African continent, on the modest yacht of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. After a 30-minute ride from the capital city of Dakar, the president and first lady Laura Bush, accompanied by their daughter Barbara, stepped ashore on Goree and walked down a narrow street toward the infamous “slave house.”
“Oh, that’s the point of no departure,” Mr. Bush remarked to his wife as they came upon the pink-stucco house, built in 1776.
Actually, the house is known for its “door of no return,” a hole through which slaves were said to have been forced to board ships in the Atlantic. It’s a bright rectangle of light down a dark stone hallway, although locals say the door might have been used only for the dumping of dead and dying slaves, because the sea is not deep enough for ships at that site.
Mr. Bush told reporters that it was a “very emotional, very touching,” experience to tour the house with the two most prominent black members of his administration, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. They viewed cramped cells where hundreds of Africans were once chained and shackled in squalid conditions for months before being herded aboard slave ships.
“At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold,” the president said afterward. “Human beings were delivered and sorted and weighed and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return.
“One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history,” he said above the sound of the surf.
Yet the president also spoke at length about the fall of slavery, praising historical figures such as President Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Having denounced Christians for enslaving blacks, Mr. Bush credited Christianity with providing those slaves with the hope of emancipation.
“In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom,” the president said. “Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found He was more like themselves than their masters.”