Old Slave Mart

The city of Charleston extensively regulated slavery. In the 1850s, it passed an ordinance to force slave auction indoors. That gave rise to slave marts such as this one on Chalmers Street. 

The city of Charleston may become the next Southern city to apologize for its role in the slave trade, and the timing is significant. 

City Council will consider a two-page apology resolution Tuesday, which happens to be "Juneteenth" — the annual celebration of June 19, 1865, the day a Union general rode to Galveston, Texas, and officially ended slavery there. 

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who is promoting the resolution, said he hopes to see standing room only inside City Hall Tuesday, with supporters spilling out onto Broad Street. The building itself was built by slaves under the watch of their owners. Both slaves and their owners are among Gregorie's ancestors. 

"This is a historical moment for our city, our city that was a seat for the Confederacy," he said. "Our city is denouncing and apologizing for its role in the torture of enslaved people." 

The resolution has been in the works since August 2017.

That's when Gregorie was approached by the Social Justice Racial Equality Collaborative. The original draft of the apology was nine pages, he said, but the city's legal department worked with the collaborative to edit it down.

The apology is more than just a symbolic gesture, Gregorie said. It will call for establishing an office on racial reconciliation. 

The resolution's language was still being edited on Thursday before it is distributed to City Council members, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said. The draft is expected to be released Friday. 

Council members reached for comment Thursday said they needed to look at that document before making up their minds.

"I'll have to read it first and see if it makes sense," said Councilman James Lewis.  

Councilman Kevin Shealy agreed, and told The Post and Courier he was inclined to vote no.  

Gregorie said he hopes to see a unanimous vote for approval. 

"Some are arguing their families had nothing to do with slavery. ... We are dealing with the city as a collective," he said. "I think it's important for our city, if we want to really move forward with racial relations, that we first recognize our role in enslaving African-Americans." 

Charleston is more than one of many Southern cities and plantations that had slavery. Its port served as a major entry point in the African slave trade that began during the earliest colonial times and continued off and on until 1808.

During the antebellum period, the city didn't merely condone slavery. It regulated it. Many are familiar with "slave tags" issued by the city — metal badges issued to slaves hired out for work across the city. These tags denoted the slave's working status.

The city later banned slave auctions from its streets, forcing them into auction houses. One of these houses, Ryan's Mart, survives today on Chalmers Street, where it is now the city-run Old Slave Mart Museum.

In 1860, about 4 million slaves were shared between the Southern states. But it was only in South Carolina and Mississippi where slaves outnumbered free men and woman, according to the 1860 census. 

Across the South, about one-third of families owned slaves. In South Carolina, about 46 percent of free households owned slaves. That's according to a 2008 report from the National Conference of State Leadership, which also noted several states had apologized for their historical role in supporting slavery. 

Virginia was the first state to formally apologize for its role in slavery and the Jim Crow era in 2007. State leaders met in Richmond, Va. — the most prominent former capitol of the Confederacy — and unanimously passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" over the state's history.

Months later, lawmakers in Alabama, Maryland and North Carolina followed suit. In 2008, New Jersey and Florida approved official apologies, followed by Tennessee and Connecticut in 2009. Delaware became the ninth state to apologize in 2016.  

Cities have also moved toward apologies of sorts, though there is no comprehensive list of cities that have done so, said National League of Cities spokesman Tom Martin. 

In 2007, the mayor of Macon, Ga., issued an executive order apologizing for the city's role in slavery. During the same year, the City Council in Annapolis, Md., — a former slave port city — proposed an apology for "perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness" caused to African-Americans. 

In June 2015, shortly after the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu apologized for his city's role in the slave trade. 

"Let me, as the chief executive officer of this government, in this city that one moment in history sold more slaves into slavery than anywhere else in America, apologize for this country’s history and legacy of slavery," Landrieu told TV news outlet WWL at the time.

Tuesday's vote will come as the city marks the third anniversary of the Emanuel AME Church massacre, during which nine black parishioners were shot and killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof. The church itself will celebrate its 200th anniversary this year. 

Finally, the apology comes during a time of ongoing soul-searching over the balance of commemorating the Confederacy and African-American history; city leaders already have acknowledged existing monuments are skewed toward recognizing those who defended and fought for maintaining slavery. 

The reaction to the proposal by the S.C. Secessionist Party — which defends states' rights and the Confederacy — pointed toward the problems that gentrification has brought to the peninsula. 

"Rather than proposing a condemnation and apology for something that took place more than 150 years ago, the City Council of Charleston should apologize for their more recent mistreatment of Blacks in Charleston." 

They go on to say that: "The City Council and Mayor Tecklenburg should apologize for their own wrongdoings before they try to speak for the people of Charleston or those long dead."

While efforts to add new language to the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square have stalled, plans for new monuments honoring African-Americans are ongoing, as are efforts to establish the International African-American Museum at the site where slaves were imported into the peninsula. 

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Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.