House Speaker’s slavery apology finds forgiveness

tschlichenmeyer@tri-statedefender.com | 2/25/2009, 6 p.m.

Elaine Lee Turner, director of the Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum, conducts a tour for House Speaker Kent Williams and Rep. G. A. Hardaway. (Photo by Hubert Spight)

During his first visit to Memphis, Tennessee House Speaker Kent Williams of Elizabethton gave the people meeting with him something they never expected: An apology for slavery, and for the terrible things members of his race had done to blacks.

His remarks were made at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Oversight Committee, which was held at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Fresh from a visit to Slavehaven Underground Railroad Museum at the Burkle Estate, where museum director Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours had explained the economic benefits of the slave trade and presented evidence of slaves being sold in Memphis, Williams remarked that the only way white Americans could truly understand the abusive conditions and devastating effects of slavery was to imagine their own children in that particular situation.


House Speaker Kent Williams apologized for slavery during his stop at the National Civil Rights Museum. It was Williams’ first trip to Memphis. He was invited by Rep. G.A. Hardayway. (Photo by Hubert Spight)

Following Williams’ apology, Oversight Committee member Minister Suhkara A. Yahweh responded with three words:  “We forgive you.”

On Jan. 13, Williams replaced Democrat Jimmy Naifeh as House Speaker with unanimous Democratic Party support and after casting the deciding vote for himself.  A self-described “Carter County Republican,” Williams recently was kicked out of the Tennessee GOP (Grand Old Party) after he became speaker and, in the process, derailed the aspirations of Conservative Republican Jason Mumpower.

A resident of Carter County in Tennessee’s 4th District, Williams visited at the request of State Rep. G.A. Hardaway. On his two-day tour Feb. 20 to 21, he had an opportunity to view firsthand numerous inner-city challenges.

Minister Yahweh, reflecting later on the apology for slavery, said it is easy to regret.  However, he said the speaker backed up his talk with civil actions. At one point, a man who had been wrongfully incarcerated approached Williams and asked that the state turn over the remainder of the funds due him. The state, the man said, has placed those funds in an annuity

“I promise you that I will do all that I can to help you,” Williams said.

That incident coupled with the apology impressed Yahweh who says, “That was sincere: apologizing for the behavior of his people. We will see.”

(View photos of Kent Williams at Slave Haven and the National Civil Rights Museum at www.tri-statedefender.com)

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House Speaker shares his visionduring whirlwind tour of Memphis