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Commentary: Charleston Council's slavery apology makes no sense and lacks credibility

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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg speaks in support of the resolution to formally apologize for the city's role in slavery. Council later voted to approve the resolution. Brad Nettles/Staff

Let me remind you of what sometimes is told as a jest, the fact that the number of one’s ancestors increases as we look back in time. Disregarding the chances of intermarriage, each one of us had two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on backward, until very soon, in less than 50 generations, we should find that, but for the qualification introduced, we should have all the earth’s inhabitants of that time as our progenitors. For a hundred generations it must hold absolutely true, that everyone of that time who has issue living now is ancestral to all of us. That brings the thing quite within the historical period. There is not a western European paleolithic or neolithic relic that is not a family relic for every soul alive. The blood in our veins has handled it.

And there is something more. We are all going to mingle our blood again. We cannot keep ourselves apart; the worst enemies will someday come to the Peace of Verona. All the Montagues and Capulets are doomed to intermarry. A time will come in less than 50 generations when all the population of the world will have my blood, and I and my worst enemy will not be able to say which child is his or mine.

– H.G. Wells, “First and Last Things”

Recently, while dusting off some old college notebooks (I seldom throw anything away), I came across the H.G. Wells piece I’ve quoted above. I don’t entirely buy into his thesis — it has more than a few holes in it. But it did get me to thinking.

How far back in time should we go when feeling guilty for wrongs some of our ancestors might have done to the ancestors of some others we ourselves have never wronged?

The Bible (Exodus 34:7) says “the inequity of the fathers” ... [will be visited] “upon the children and the children’s children unto the third and the fourth generation.” Well, how long is a generation?

Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, says, “In human populations the generation time typically ranges from 22 to 33 years.” I’ve long thought in terms of 25 years, but for the sake of argument let’s use 22. Four generations ago would then take us back to 1930, and Wells’ 50 generations to 918 A.D. — well within historical times.

By now you may have guessed I’m about to make an argument about the recent (and narrowly passed) resolution by Charleston City Council apologizing for slavery. Let’s be clear. A city is not its buildings, historic and beautiful though they may be. A city is not its laws and its governing body’s notions of right and wrong. A city is its people.

Charleston’s people are a mixed lot. Many and quite possibly most of Charleston’s people today have come here “from off.” A resolution by City

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Council apologizing for its people, relatively few of whom actually are descendants of slaveholders, makes no sense. In the absence of an expressed will by those apologized for, it has no credibility either.

I think that slavery — which still exists in parts of the world — is an evil our country was well shed of, even at the horrendous cost of a great and tragic civil war, a war that took the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

African slavery did not originate here. It originated in Africa. It could not have flourished to the extent it did without the active participation of African warlords who marched their chattel in chains to the ships that carried them to the New World.

Slavery was formally abolished in the United States when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. No living descendant of those living when slavery existed in our country has ever legally owned a slave or engaged in the slave trade. (I’ve inserted the word “legally” to acknowledge that a criminal element still practices a depraved form of slavery here, one associated with child pornography and sexual abuse.)

To get back to H.G. Wells, his and the Bible’s notion that we are all descended from an Adam and an Eve, and that one day we will all be brothers and sisters under the sun, is almost certainly more romantic than scientific. Which is a pity — yes, a pity.

How wonderful it would be if we came to the point in our development as members of the human race when we actually did judge men and women not by the color of their skin, but by their character. (Martin Luther King Jr. said as much.)

How great if our passion for equality did not overwhelm the clear evidence before our very eyes. We are not born equal in every physical or mental respect. How boring it would be if we were. In a free society such as ours, we are born equal only in the opportunity to achieve everything our parental heritage, our genes, and a loving God have made possible for us to achieve.

Who must we apologize to for that?

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.

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