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Thomas N. DeWolf: What’s the Point of the U.S. Senate Apology for Slavery?

Thomas N. DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, published by Beacon Press. Tom speaks regularly at schools, conferences, and other events around the country. For further information go to: www.inheritingthetrade.com, where you can also find his Inheriting the Trade blog.

Book Cover of Inheriting the Trade, links to Beacon Press page for book Does anyone out there know Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC? I'd like to send him a copy of my book, Inheriting the Trade. My impression is that, like my own, his education lacked some aspects of our nation's history that have been kept hidden from students.

Most of you know that last week the United States Senate unanimously passed S. Con. Res. 26 apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.

I wrote about this–so won't repeat myself–on June 15. Read my post here. Also read my cousin James DeWolf Perry's excellent post here about why apologies are both important and troublesome.

My focus today is on the mixed reaction the apology has received. Chris Matthews certainly had a strong reaction. Watch as he interviews Reps. Steve Cohen and Jim Clyburn, embedded after the jump.

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Though Matthews seems to support repairing the lingering damage from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow he blames it all on the South. Here's what he said to Rep. Cohen (who sponsored H.Res. 194, the House apology bill that passed in July 2008):

Why should the whole country apologize for what a good half or more of the country got killed opposing, sir?

You're from Tennessee… why should anybody apologize for your sins?

Like many people, Mr. Matthews views the North as home to the valiant abolitionists who fought and died in the Civil War forcing the rebels to end the horrible institution of slavery. What's missing from this view is the fact that the vast majority of slave trading was done by northerners, with northern financing, on northern ships, out of ports in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and other northern states. What's also missing is the fact that African people and their descendants were enslaved in the North for over 200 years. The final laws ending slavery in various northern states weren't enacted until the 1840's, less than two decades before the Civil War.

The residual effects of the legacy of slavery in the North are also not widely taught in schools. Segregation and discrimination after the Civil War were not limited to the South. Far from it. As described in detail by James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns, cities, counties, and even some entire states prohibited people of African descent from residing within their boundaries. Read When Affirmative Action Was White, by Ira Katznelson, for a clear explanation of how government policies contributed directly to racial inequity throughout the United States.

Chris Matthews, and many others like him, are in a powerful position to impact the public dialogue. Whatever we all can do to support them in understanding and explaining the full history of our nation, including the shameful parts, will be another step on the long journey to living up to the ideals upon which this great nation was founded.

So is an apology for slavery and its aftermath by the U.S. Congress appropriate and necessary on behalf of all of the United States? Without hesitation I say "Yes. Absolutely. It is a good first step."

I encourage you to listen to this interview from yesterday (June 24) on NPR's Tell Me More with Daniel Smith, a former Civil Rights worker and son of a man born into slavery in 1862, and my cousin Katrina Browne, creator of the film of our family journey, Traces of the Trade.

Daniel Smith says:

The apology represents men and women of good faith trying to come to grips with the problem of slavery in our country and the historical impact its had on the nation; not just on blacks–on this country. To me it represents a first step by the government to recognize the wrongs that were done to the citizens of this country."

Katrina Browne says:

As white folks we don't have to feel like it's a personal apology, as if we did it, but I do feel that acknowledging, having white people really see and take to heart that which was suffered and the consequences of it that are still with us today opens a channel of basic human decency and the connection and dialogue that can lead us to figure out where we go next."

Where we go next… that's the real issue.