Friday, March 23, 2007

Two Houston Lawmakers Seek Apology Over Slavery

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — Convinced by this week's debate over Confederate monuments that some Texans remain insensitive to the issue, two Houston lawmakers plan to sponsor a resolution supporting an official acknowledgment of slavery in Texas' past.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, both Democrats, will suggest a formal apology for slavery, a correction of the historical record and recognition of contributions made by African-Americans in Texas.

The language of the resolution is still in draft form, but it seeks "acknowledging with profound regret the involuntary servitude of Africans, and a call for reconciliation among all Texans."

"Texas played a key role in this 'peculiar institution' called slavery," Ellis said Thursday. "It existed here longer than the rest of the country," he said.

News of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves didn't reach Texas until June of 1865, more than two years after it took effect.

Texas would join legislatures in Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New York and Vermont that are considering similar measures.

Last month Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" over that state's role in slavery and the segregation of African-Americans after slavery.

On the federal level, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has introduced a resolution for a national apology.

Thompson and Ellis have been considering legislation for weeks, but had planned to proceed slowly, seek consensus and reach out to experts around the country.

All that changed on Wednesday when Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, sought to preserve some Confederate statues by prohibiting the removal or relocation of memorial plaques or statues from state property without approval of the Legislature, Texas Historical Commission or State Preservation Board.

The debate veered into a divisive discussion of slavery and civil rights. After nearly two hours of debate Miller abandoned his bill.

Thompson said the leadership should not have allowed the bill to make its way to the House floor and "subject the members to such an unnecessary confrontation."

On Thursday she said the showdown highlighted some House members' "lack of sensitivity, by constantly reopening wounds that have not healed."

Earlier this week Ellis won unanimous approval from the Senate for the state's two large pension funds to divest their holdings in companies doing business in Sudan as a protest of the genocide in Darfur.

That measure was cosponsored with Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and has been endorsed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

The lawmakers pushing for an apology are hoping to get similar bipartisan support for their measure. They are considering inserting language about the contributions of Native Americans and Hispanics, who have been "historically overlooked and undervalued, mistreated and maligned," Ellis said.

Lawmakers backing the bill, including Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said they want to be methodical and analytical in their approach. They already are anticipating the kind of push back they will get, including members who will say that they should "get over it," or let "bygones be bygones."

Ellis' response to that will be that they are not seeking a personal apology, rather an acknowledgment that Texas sanctioned and encouraged the institution of slavery.

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