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Va. lawmakers air 'profound regret' for slavery

RICHMOND, Va. -- Meeting on the grounds of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously yesterday to express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

Sponsors of the resolution say they know of no other state that has apologized for slavery, although Missouri lawmakers are considering such a measure. The resolution does not carry the weight of law but sends an important symbolic message, supporters said.

"This session will be remembered for a lot of things, but 20 years hence I suspect one of those things will be the fact that we came together and passed this resolution," said A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat who sponsored it in the House of Delegates.

The resolution passed the House on a vote of 96 to 0 and cleared the Senate on a unanimous voice vote.

The slavery apology resolution was introduced as Virginia begins its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in 1619.

Richmond, home to a popular boulevard lined with statues of Confederate leaders, later became another point of arrival for Africans and a hub for the slave trade.

The resolution says government-sanctioned slavery "ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation's history, and the abolition of slavery was followed by systematic discrimination, enforced segregation, and other insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias, and racial misunderstanding."

In Virginia, black voter turnout was suppressed with a poll tax and literacy tests before those practices were struck down by federal courts, and state leaders responded to federally ordered school desegregation with the Massive Resistance movement in the 1950s and early '60s.

The apology is the latest in a series of strides Virginia has made in overcoming its segregationist past.

Virginia was the first state to elect a black governor -- L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 -- and the Legislature took a step toward atoning for the Massive Resistance in 2004 by creating a scholarship fund for blacks whose schools were shut down between 1954 and 1964.

Earlier this month, Senator Barak Obama of Illinois and his wife, Michelle, traveled to Richmond to receive a presidential endorsement from Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat. Obama said his White House bid is a symbol for improving race relations in America.

"Here we are in the heart of what was the Confederacy," Obama said. "For me to be able to stand here as an African-American reflects the enormous progress this country has made."

Kaine's signature is not required for the joint legislative resolution, but when he was mayor of Richmond, he issued an apology for slavery.

The House and Senate originally considered versions of the resolution with different language, but a Senate committee reached agreement on a compromise that will avoid a conference committee.

The final version avoids the word "atonement," which some members said might suggest that reparations were necessary.