Slavery is still legal in Ohio, under one condition. A group of state lawmakers wants to change that

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Slavery is still technically legal in Ohio, under one condition. After an effort by the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus to strip the language of slavery from the constitution in 2016, one state lawmaker is renewing the effort this year.

While the Ohio Constitution of 1851 banned slavery in the state, it left open one exception. The constitution states: “There shall be no slavery in this state; nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime.”

State Senator Cecil Thomas, a Democrat representing Cincinnati, is renewing the effort to remove the final six words — unless for the punishment of crime — from the constitution.

“What legitimate reason would you have that exception for unless you planned to use it for Ohio’s future history?” Thomas asked the Statehouse News Bureau.

To remove the language from the state constitution, Thomas’ resolution must be passed by three-fifths of the state’s House and Senate. Then, a statewide proposal to remove the reference to slavery would be put on the ballot.

While the state Senate is planning to meet monthly, the House isn’t scheduled to return to session until September. Thomas said the change should happen sooner rather than later.

Thomas’ proposal renews a 2016 effort by then-OLBC President, State Rep. Alicia Reece, to remove the language from the state constitution.

“No slavery, no exceptions,” Reece said in a news release from 2016. “Over 150 years after our nation abolished slavery, there can be no acceptable circumstance for slavery in our state, and our constitution must reflect that. In 2016, this General Assembly should give Ohioans the opportunity to take slavery out of our state’s guiding document.”

Reece’s resolution was first introduced on May 25, 2016.

“Any form of slavery, regardless of the circumstance, is immoral and abhorrent and should not be condoned by the state constitution,” said State Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) four years ago. “The people of Ohio should have the chance to remove the antiquated, offensive slavery reference from our state’s founding document.”

“This issue is about more than language — it’s about our values and what we stand for as a state,” House Democratic Leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) said in 2016. “A constitution is not just an arrangement of governing laws, but a set of fundamental principles that guides its people. Slavery has no rightful place in our state’s founding document.”

The current version of the Ohio Constitution was ratified by the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851, replacing the state’s first constitution, written in 1803. At the time, only white men who had resided in the state for at least a year could vote, according to Ohio History Central. An overwhelming majority of delegates voted against extending suffrage to women of any race and African-American men. A majority of Ohio voters voted to approve the constitution on June 17, 1851, and while numerous amendments have been made over the years, the Constitution of 1851 remains the fundamental law document in the state.

This story was originally published by Ian Cross on WEWS in Cleveland.

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