National News

Charleston Apologizes for City’s Role in Slave Trade

Posted June 20, 2018 12:45 a.m. EDT

Charleston, the South Carolina port city where about 40 percent of enslaved Africans landed in North America after being taken from their homelands, has become the latest city to apologize for its role in the slave trade.

In an emotional and at times heated meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd, the Charleston City Council on Tuesday night approved a two-page resolution in City Hall — a structure built by slaves — that its supporters saw as a step toward racial healing.

The resolution, which was approved by voice vote and was met with cheers, recognized that the city had flourished at the cost of those enslaved and apologized on behalf of the city for its role in the trade. It also acknowledged wrongs committed against African-Americans by slavery and Jim Crow laws.

The resolution pledges city officials will work with businesses and organizations to strive for racial equality and suggests the creation of an office of racial conciliation to help the process of racial healing.

But some people who spoke during a public comment period and council members who debated the resolution for nearly two hours questioned whether it went far enough to tackle systemic issues, like affordable housing, economic development and criminal justice matters facing the city’s African-Americans.

Mayor John Tecklenburg, who supported the measure, spoke of how “enamored and intertwined” the city had been with slavery. “Do we have a reason to be sorry, to apologize?'’ he said, his voice unsteady. “We do.”

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie drew a comparison between children born into slavery who were separated from their parents and migrant children and parents who, under the current immigration policy in the United States, he said, “are being torn from their parents and put into detention camps.” The resolution would be a way to apologize and move forward, he said.

But other council members voted against the resolution, saying they wanted to see more tangible action.

Councilman Perry K. Waring said he wanted more to be done to empower the city’s African-American community. “As a descendant of slaves, I cannot support this resolution,” he said.

Councilman Harry Griffin said the city needed to address other issues first. Griffin abruptly ended his comments after the crowd interrupted him when he said he would not support the resolution.

The resolution acknowledged that “fundamental to the economy of colonial and antebellum Charleston was slave labor, Charleston prospering as it did due to the expertise, ingenuity and hard labor of enslaved Africans who were forced to endure inhumane working conditions that produced wealth for many, but which was denied to them.”

Before the vote, dozens of people spoke in favor of the resolution. Some warned it should not be a last step, but one toward equality in the form of opportunities for black entrepreneurs and racial equity training.

In passing a resolution apologizing for slavery, Charleston, which draws several million visitors a year and is known for its cobblestone streets and antebellum mansions, joins several states and cities that have approved similar measures. Among them are Florida; North Carolina; Alabama; Virginia; Maryland; New Jersey; Macon, Georgia; and Annapolis, Maryland.

The vote Tuesday came on the anniversary of Juneteenth, a holiday tied to an 1865 announcement about the end of slavery. It also came two days after the third anniversary of the killing nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by Dylann Roof.

In an op-ed piece published in The Post and Courier of Charleston on Monday, members of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative, a group formed to address social inequality in the city, said the idea to seek a statement from the council about slavery began a year ago. The group believes that adoption of the resolution will allow the city and country a healing moment.

Remnants of Charleston’s major role in the slave trade still exist in the form of a museum. The Old Slave Mart Museum, where slave auctions were held, recounts the city’s role in slave trading and houses African-American arts and crafts.

The city is planning to open the International African American Museum on the old wharf where slave ships were unloaded. Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told The New York Times in 2016 that the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church pushed him to accelerate plans for the museum.