TRENTON, N.J. - New Jersey would become the first Northern state and the fifth state overall to apologize for slavery under a measure to be considered this week by state lawmakers.
"This is not too much to ask of the state of New Jersey," said Assemblyman William Payne, who sponsors the bill. "All that is being requested of New Jersey is to say three simple words: We are sorry."
Legislators in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia have issued formal apologies.
"If former Confederate states can take action like this, why can't a Northeast state like New Jersey?" asked Payne, a Democrat from Essex.
But Republican lawmakers wonder if it would be relevant.
"Who living today is guilty of slave-holding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?" asked Assemblyman Richard Merkt, a Morris Republican. "And who living today is a former slave and thus capable of accepting the apology? So how is a real apology even remotely possible, much less meaningful, given the long absence of both oppressor and victim?"
But Payne, an Essex Democrat, said an apology would comfort black residents and set an example for other states. "Slavery was an evil and shameful practice and New Jersey should profess remorse for its past involvement," he said.
The measure is set for a hearing tomorrow. It hasn't received Senate consideration but would have to be adopted by Tuesday, when the legislative session expires.
It's proposed as a resolution, a form used to express the Legislature's opinion and requiring no gubernatorial action.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Morris Republican, said Democrats should start by asking their own party to apologize, noting the historic Republican opposition to slavery and how New Jersey twice voted against Lincoln.
"But, on a current note, if slavery was the price that a modern American's ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one's knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid," Carroll said. He said his ancestors came from Ireland around the 1850s, fleeing the potato famine he said was worsened by British indifference.
"Far from holding it against the modern British, I delight in the cruelty of their forebears. Without same, I might be hanging around in Inisfree," Carroll said, referencing an Irish island.
New Jersey has 8.7 million residents, 14.5 percent of them black.
According to the proposal, New Jersey had one of the largest slave populations in the northern colonies, was the last Northern state to free slaves and was the last Northeast state to abolish slavery, doing so in 1846.
It also allowed authorities to return runaway slaves to their owners and didn't ratify the amendment prohibiting slavery until January 1866, a bit more than a month after its passage, after rejecting it in 1865.
"It's a disgraceful part of our state's history," said Payne. But Merkt said many residents descend from families who came to America after the Civil War and have no link to slave-holding.
"Today's residents of New Jersey, even those who can trace their ancestry back to either slaves or slave-holders, bear no collective guilt or responsibility for unjust events in which they personally played no role," Merkt said.
The proposed resolution expresses "profound regret for the state's role in slavery and apologizes for the wrongs inflicted by slavery and its aftereffects in the United States of America."
It states that in New Jersey, "the vestiges of slavery are ever before African-American citizens, from the overt racism of hate groups to the subtle racism encountered when requesting health care, transacting business, buying a home, seeking quality public education and college admission, and enduring pretextual traffic stops and other indignities."