Legislature makes apology for slavery

Florida slavery

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature formally apologized Wednesday for its long support of slavery in a resolution calling for reconciliation.

Senators approved the resolution at their morning session after hearing some of the history detailing the treatment endured by slaves in the 19th century and the reluctance of politicians in the last century to recognize the intolerance and mistreatment of blacks. The House passed the resolution later a few hours later.

“It is important that the Legislature express profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state’s history,” the resolution reads.

Legislators in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have recently issued formal apologies for slavery, and New Jersey became the first northern state to apologize in January.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who was jailed for civil disobedience in 1963 after protesting racial inequalities, cried as details of the cruel treatment experienced by blacks were read.

“It was painful to hear … I wanted to scream,” said Joyner, D-Tampa. “I know how incensed I got in the ’60s just because I couldn’t go to a movie. That was nothing compared to what my forefathers had to go through.”

Florida enacted its first slave laws in the 1820s as a territory, and early political leaders in the state were some of the most vigorous defenders of slavery.

That included Florida Gov. Gen. Richard Keith Call. In a portion of an 1861 letter that was read on the Senate floor Wednesday, Call described a black man as “an animal in the form of a man, possessing the greatest physical power, and the greatest capacity for labor and endurance … a wild barbarian, to be tamed and civilized by the discipline of slavery.”

In the 1850s, at a time when Florida’s population was around 111,000, 44 percent of the population were slaves. After the Civil War, Florida’s Constitution of 1868 guaranteed blacks the right to vote and abolished slavery in the state, but inequities remained.

Former Gov. LeRoy Collins is largely credited as the politician who fought segregation and promoted more opportunity for blacks in Florida in the late 1950s. Collins was among the first New South politicians who fought for racial justice, but was never again elected to political office after serving his final term as governor.

Rep. Joe Gibbons, who serves as the legislative black caucus chairman, noted the irony of many of the portraits hanging in the Capitol.

“The very people we honor with portraits … are the very people who fought to perpetuate an oppressive movement,” said Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.