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New Jersey Apologizes for Slavery


We have more in our slavery series. This month, we've been acknowledging the 200th anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. The U.S. ban went into effect on January 1st of 1808. But as, of course, we all know, slavery in the U.S. did not end when African people ceased to be imported.

New Jersey was the last state in the Northeast to formally abolish slavery after 1846, according to a state government resolution. But now, New Jersey has become the first Northern state to apologize for its role in slavery.

I talked with two members of the New Jersey legislature before the assembly voted last night to sponsor the proposal, New Jersey Assemblyman William Payne and New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, who opposed the idea. Assemblyman Payne explained why he sponsored the resolution, and why was it so important.

WILLIAM PAYNE: I believe that there are many, many people in the state of New Jersey and elsewhere who were not aware that the state of New Jersey, in fact, had slavery, that many people have expressed surprise to me when I indicate to them that there were over 13,000 enslaved Africans in the state of New Jersey during the 1800s or early 1800.

I think this resolution, for number one, serves to enlighten people, open up their eyes and let them realize that there needs to be a lot more done about addressing the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation. It still exists in our state.

MARTIN: Why an apology as opposed to, say, Virginia, which expressed regret?

PAYNE: I believe that we are asking for - seeking an apology from the body politic, the state of New Jersey for having participated in such an inhumane practice for so many years. And so why not an apology?

MARTIN: Mr. Carroll, that question to you. Why not?

MICHAEL PATRICK CARROLL: An apology is something guilty people give to victims. There are no more guilty people left, and there haven't been for 150 years. And there are no more victims left. The last slave died, depending upon which historical reference you believe, in 1979 at the age of 137. So there's no one left to apologize to, and no one left who owes an apology.

MARTIN: Would you disagree that there are certainly people who are benefited from the legacy of the ownership of other persons, and there are persons who have experienced the legacy of having been owned?

PATRICK CARROLL: Well, I suppose. I mean, just in the same sense that my wife's family, for example, who was burdened by the Hapsburg empire, but it hardly it makes sense for us to be ticked off at Austria today. And it makes no sense to sit back and internalize grudges based upon history.

MARTIN: Mr. Payne?

PAYNE: Oh, my God. This is - oh, my goodness. Obviously, Mr. Carroll does not quite understand what it is that we're talking about here. We're not talking about grudges. We're not talking about something that ended 150 years ago. We're talking about the fact that because the state of New Jersey had slaves and owned people, treated them as chattel, that there are remaining results that caused those descendants of slaves to continue to not be able to enjoy the American dream, simply because there are people with that kind of attitude that almost downplayed the significance of this terrible, terrible episode in our history.

It does no harm whatsoever to acknowledge that the state of New Jersey did participate in this terrible practice. It does no harm at all. As a matter of fact, what it will do, we'll be able to elevate this discussion to the point where, number one, those people who, in fact, benefited from using people as beasts of burden way back in the other part of the country...

MARTIN: Okay. But I think if you're asking the state to apologize on behalf of those individuals...

PAYNE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...who profited...

PAYNE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The body politic, there are those who say, well, we weren't here. They're not - fine. Then, if your ancestors were not here, then no need for you to apologize. However, I would think that anyone who is a resident of the state of New Jersey would want to be able to participate in trying to clear up this injustice, that we have - we cannot simply divorce ourselves from the past of the state. They are those...

MARTIN: Okay. Let's Mr. Carroll respond. I think you made that point.

PAYNE: Sure.

MARTIN: Mr. Carroll, what about that? I mean, Mr. Payne's point that it does no harm, and it might have the beneficial effect of easing the consciences of those who did benefit or providing a balm to those who suffered. What do you say to that?

PATRICK CARROLL: We're discussing something again, an institution that ended in 1865. To the extent that America or New Jersey owed an apology, 650,000 federal troops bled during the war to end slavery.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And I'm talking with two assemblymen from New Jersey who are debating whether the state of New Jersey should apologize for its role in slavery.

Mr. Carroll, can I just ask you about something? That you were quoted in an article saying that if slavery was the price for the modern Americans' ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, when should get down one's knees every single day and thank the Lord that such a price was paid.

PAYNE: Oh, my God.

MARTIN: Did - were you quoted accurately? And do you really believe that?

PATRICK CARROLL: Yeah. Not only did I say that, I wrote so they couldn't get it wrong.

PAYNE: Oh, my God.

PATRICK CARROLL: It was the next couple of words that said, if you're an Irish - a descendant of Irish-Americans, you should be happy that the Brits were such tyrants that they kicked you out - your ancestors out of Ireland.

MARTIN: Okay. But you don't see a difference between a benign neglect or voluntarily leaving to seek opportunities elsewhere...

PATRICK CARROLL: I mean, (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: ...as the same as being held in lifetime force bondage? You don't see...

PATRICK CARROLL: People do not acknowledge the pride of place that slavery enjoys as being the single greatest human rights violation this country has ever imposed upon people. Even the admittedly horrific conditions that other immigrants faced, one's just not paying attention. I pride myself on some historical knowledge. And again, that's sort of more of a thought experiment than anything else. So I wasn't saying that anybody should be happy about slavery. What I'm saying is is that the place that people pay to make you an American - the value of your Americanhood is so important and so valuable, that it is worth almost any suffering that your ancestors endured.

PAYNE: Oh, my God. You know, that's grotesque.

PATRICK CARROLL: And this country would be extraordinarily different if people around the rest of the world, or even here, hadn't done things that they did. And as an American today, we look back in our history and we say, we're not happy that our ancestors did x.

PATRICK CARROLL: We're not happy, my God.

PAYNE: We're not happy that they were slaveholders or slaves or what have you. But to treat it at any...


PATRICK CARROLL: ...other than history is nonsensical.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Payne?

PAYNE: Yes. Any enlightened person recognizes that the - as I've said before - the vestiges of slavery continue and linger in our society. And if someone - if people are to deny that then obviously they have their head in the sand, or obviously they're deliberately ignoring the fact that...

MARTIN: Mr. Payne, you know what? It sounds to me, like, you're actually personally offended by Mr. Carroll's remarks.

PAYNE: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Am I reading that right?

PAYNE: But let me make it clear. I don't think that just Mr. Payne would be offended by it. I think every single New Jerseyan - be they be black or white - would be offended by the grotesque remarks that Mr. Carroll has made, that people should be almost grateful to be - end up as an - on these shores, regardless of the fact that millions of people were brought here in chains, that there were others who came and were welcomed by the Lady Liberty, but - from Europe, but there are others who came - my ancestors came in chains - that we should be grateful for that? Oh, my God. I think that is such a grotesque, as I say, comment to be made. We're talking about 10, 15, 20 million people that never made it across the ocean in (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Okay. Let's Mr. Carroll respond. Mr. Carroll, do you care to respond?

PATRICK CARROLL: If people don't study history...

PAYNE: Yeah.

PATRICK CARROLL: ...and they don't know the history of slavery...

PAYNE: Oh, right.

PATRICK CARROLL: ...this bill isn't going to help. And if this was about an apology, modern Americans - modern New Jersey residents...

PAYNE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

PATRICK CARROLL: ...being asked to apologize for something that ended 154 years ago...

PAYNE: Well, also...

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Payne, what about his point, though? What about the point that if the purpose is to sort of raise an educational tool...

PAYNE: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: ...that can be accomplished in other ways, that this doesn't really achieve any effect?

PAYNE: Well, I think - well, you know, there has been precedent for what I'm talking about. I mean, this government - the United States government apologized for the internment of Japanese back in the '40s, okay? Apologized for that.

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Carroll, if I can ask you to clarify, Mr. Payne's point was to suggest that people should be grateful for slavery even - if the benefit was eventual citizenship in the United States - suggests a lack of awareness of a deep brutality of the institution in this country, of persons having no right to their physical integrity, no right to hold on to their families of being, you know, raped at every turn, or whatever. It suggests that there is a lack of awareness of the institution that does suggest that there perhaps there is some benefits to bringing greater light to it. And your response to that, would be?

PATRICK CARROLL: Well, again, if this were a study commission, again - although we've already got one in New Jersey. The fact of the matter is, is that it's not. Again, I find some (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: But what's so terrible? I mean, his initial question is what's so wrong? What's wrong with it?

PATRICK CARROLL: You shouldn't apologize for things you didn't do. And, you know, when he talks about continuing enterprise, you know, just as an aside, the reason New Jersey was somewhat in the backwater of northeastern states back when was because it was run by Democrats.

The Democratic Party was the most virulently racist organization, probably ever known to American politics. Now, it's not so anymore. I don't think Assemblyman Payne owes a personal apology for that. But to the extent it's a continuing enterprise, I don't know that these Democratic national committees or the Democratic state committees in New Jersey have ever apologized for the Democratic Party's virulently racist pro-slavery and anti-(unintelligible) mentality.

MARTIN: Okay. But I think - but there is an inherent contradiction there, because you're demonstrating that the government did participate in, enable and support this institution. So on that standard...

PATRICK CARROLL: (unintelligible). I mean, but the point of the matter is is if you're going to put a house in order, put your own political house in order first.

MARTIN: I'd like to hear more about this. What feedback are you getting from your constituents about this?

PATRICK CARROLL: Oh, from my constituents, very little. But I mean, from, you know, people around who'll say it's a racist comment, they took it the wrong way. They took it as minimizing slavery, which of course, it's not. It's - what it's elevating is the price sometimes had to be paid to become an American. What kind of a nation would this be but for it's history? And for good or for ill...

MARTIN: Mr. Payne, what kind of feedback are you getting from your constituents?

PAYNE: All kinds of comments coming from folks that are - said, finally, at last. And what they're saying is that what we're looking for is continuing a dialogue on how do we address those kinds of conditions that have their foundation in the slavery that existed. You know, things about the disparate health care, the housing - deplorable housing, job opportunities, et cetera. These are all based in foundation in this terrible condition of slavery that we have here. And it's absolutely no harm at all to this. None, whatsoever.

MARTIN: Mr. Carroll, I'd like to give you the final word.

PATRICK CARROLL: The simple fact of the matter is, it's only guilty people apologize. If you want to regret, that's fine. I can regret the Holocaust. They can regret the Battle of Wounded Knee, et cetera. But I wasn't there. Nor were any of my constituents.

MARTIN: All right. Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican, joined us by phone from his office in Morris County, Jersey. Assemblyman William Payne, a Democrat, joined us from our member station WBGO in Newark.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PATRICK CARROLL: The pleasure is mine.

PAYNE: Thank you.

MARTIN: The New Jersey Assembly approved the resolution last night by a vote of 59 to 8. It was passed by the Senate, 29 to 2. It does not require action by Governor John Corzine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.