The formal apology came after years of a struggle for recognition by the former residents of the Halifax orphanage, some of whom were in the legislature and stood in applause when the gesture was delivered.
"It is one of the great tragedies in our province's history that your cries for help were greeted with silence for so long," McNeil said.
"Some of you had said that you felt invisible. Well I want to say to you today you are invisible no longer. We hear your voices and we grieve your pain and we are sorry."
The trauma and neglect that the former residents, some of whom have since died, is something no child should ever have experienced, McNeil added.
"An apology is not the closing of the books, but a recognition that we must cast an unflinching eye at the past as we strive towards a better future," he said.
Tony Smith, one of the former residents who led the fight for public and legal recognition, said he was thankful for the apology and told the audience inside the legislature's Red Room that he used to be ashamed to say he once lived in the home.
"I'm proud to say that I am a former resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children," Smith said. "This historical apology is an apology we, the former residents, dreamed of but believed this dream would never come to light."
Former resident Harriet Johnson stood beside her father as she credited him for encouraging her not to give up the fight for justice.
"There were times when I said, 'Dad, no one is going to listen to us, they are just going to sweep this under the carpet,'" said Johnson. "So I'm very happy."
People who lived in the home as children allege that they were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse over several decades up until the 1980s.
In March 2012, the RCMP and Halifax police began urging people to come forward with their allegations.
Investigators interviewed 40 complainants in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, but by December of that year police said the information collected didn't support the laying of criminal charges because it could not be corroborated.
Class-action lawsuits were launched by the former residents against the home and the provincial government, which eventually ended in settlements totalling $34 million. The home came to a $5-million settlement with the plaintiffs in July 2013 and the Nova Scotia Supreme Court approved a $29-million award from the province a year later.
The lawyer who represents the former residents has said nearly 250 people who lived at the home from 1921 until 1989 are eligible for the class-action settlement payouts.
That agreement is before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, where a judge has asked the law firm who worked on the case for the plaintiffs to provide a legal precedent to support their proposal to have people who joined the lawsuit in later years absorb some of the legal costs of the earlier claimants.
The lawyers have asked to be paid $6.6 million in legal fees, a proposal also subject to court approval. A ruling is expected Thursday.
The Liberal government has also promised to hold a public inquiry into the alleged abuse.
McNeil said the terms of reference will be set out to give former residents an opportunity to publicly share their stories, something that should happen early next year.
"This is not an inquiry that will be loaded up with lawyers. It's an inquiry that's about healing," he said Friday.
Former resident Tracey Dorrington-Skinner said she hopes the process will hear from as many people as possible.
The apology offered Friday served as validation and was a good first step on the road to healing, she said.
"The journey continues and I just hope that everyone takes advantage of the offer from the government to seek the help that they need," she said.
The home is now a short-term residential facility for children of all races.
Also on HuffPost