In a watershed moment in Florida's race relations, a solemn state Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the Florida's long history of slavery, expressing "profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state's history."
Described as a bid for "reconciliation and healing," the House this afternoon passed a resolution apologizing for state slavery laws dating back to 1822 - decades became Florida even became a state - that "perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms."
Earlier, the Senate passed the same resolution with Gov. Charlie Crist looking on.
Legislators in both chambers sat in silence as historian John Phelps, a former House clerk, read a summary of state laws from the 19th Century that denied even basic freedoms to slaves.
Slaves could be subject to 39 lashes of a whip, administered to a bare back, for raising a hand or addressing a white person with language deemed to be abusive or offensive. For crimes as common as robbery, slaves could have their ears nailed to wooden posts for an hour or even be sentenced to death.
By 1860, at the onset of the Civil War and more than 50 years after slavery was outlawed in federal law, some 44 percent of Florida's 140,000 residents were slaves.
Florida becomes the sixth state to apologize for slavery, following Maryland and other Confederacy states Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In January, New Jersey became the first northern state to apologize for its role in slavery.
At the Capitol, Crist initially said that while the apology was important, the state should consider offering financial reparations to descendants of slaves. But he quickly backed away from that stance.
"Certainly it's something you'd like to be able to do," Crist said. "Obviously, in a difficult budgetary time, it's a challenging thing. But I just want to focus on the good thing that has happened today...It's a significant step."
Crist added that he was especially moved by descriptions of the cruelty of slave times.
"I don't think you could listen to some of the punishents that were meted out in the past...without being moved by it," Crist said. "The cruel nature and the unimaginable penalties that were described."
In Florida, the move was promoted by Sen. Tony Hill, a black Jacksonville Democrat, who worked with ruling Republicans in the House and Senate to craft the resolution. Similar measures have stirred some controversy in other states, notably Virginia where a white lawmaker said "black citizens should get over" slavery.
But in the Florida Senate, Phelps' reading was met by respectful silence. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, wiped away a tear as Phelps spoke.
"I hope that it begins a dialogue, and we can talk more about what happened. We need more discussion about race," Joyner said. "And I think this lays the groundwork for further discussion."
The resolution pointed out that although slave-era laws are gone, they shouldn't be forgotten.
"Even though the laws permitting such injustice have been repealed," the resolution concluded, "it is important the Legislature expresses profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state's history and, in so doing, promote healing and reconciliation among all Floridians."
From the House and Senate floors, Phelps read an 1861 letter from Florida Gov. Richard Keith Call describing 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."
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.
After the Civil War, Florida's Constitution of 1868 guaranteed blacks the right to vote and abolished slavery in the state. But Florida's unequal treatment of blacks continued with Jim Crow laws in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel