Les Payne: The Umph the Reparations Movemwent Is Getting from a Chicago Law Requiring Corporations to Reveal Theeir Slavery History





Les Payne, in Newsday (5-15-05):

My bank, it turns out, accumulated early assets by trafficking in slavery. So did my insurance company. Ditto the newspaper I delivered door-to-door as a child growing up in Hartford, Conn.

What should descendants of slaves make of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank? Aetna Insurance Co.? The Hartford Courant?

Consider the current evidence against this most honorable U.S. banking institution that held in human bondage hundreds of Africans brought to these shores in chains. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. hired historian James Lide to examine the 170-year-old records of its predecessor, Citizens Bank in Louisiana, according to The Wall Street Journal. The probe to clear the bank's name was not launched for reasons of altruism or ethics.

An alarm was triggered when Chase Bank conducted business in Chicago, which now requires companies doing business with the city to disclose links to slavery. With the title of Business, Corporate and Slavery Era Insurance Ordinance, the law is clear about its intent.

Although similar to a California code aimed at the slave ties of insurance firms, the controversial Chicago ordinance extends the net to cover century-old companies dealing in tobacco, transportation, textiles and finance. Thus, Chase Bank was obliged to submit records indicating whether it has owned or traded African slaves or otherwise benefited from such commerce.

Clearing a corporation's name is not quite so easy as maintaining a state of denial about slave trafficking. Lide and his three colleagues reportedly spent 3,600 hours of research traveling throughout Louisiana. As history is best prepared to reward good research, the project unearthed the truth about Citizens Bank.

The historians' report yielded some 20,000 bank references to slaves on a spreadsheet. The bank entered into the slave market as a holder of collateral. The gist of this initiation had a wealthy landowner gambling away his fortune and borrowing money against his property. We're talking money and wealth here. The bank clerks crossed every "T." The human items of property, identified by name and age, appeared on the ledgers with the chickens and cows, the farmland and the silver utensils.

Some 13,000 slaves were used as collateral by the Louisiana bank between 1831 and 1865. When debtors defaulted on their loans, Citizens Bank owned at least 1,250 slaves outright.

One account that the Journal found "haunting" concerned the minutes of an 1846 Citizens board meeting, showing directors "considered a request from Marie Rosette, a 'free woman of color,' who wanted to trade a slave of hers for her son, who was owned by a plantation that had been seized by the bank in a foreclosure. The board approved the swap."...

With an ear tuned to the reparations drums beating across the nation, Morgan Chase announced that it will set up a $5-million scholarship fund for African-American students from Louisiana.

That sucking sound out of Chicago signals only the beginning of the reparations battle. Other slavery probes have been drafted into law in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit. State-level guidelines might be enacted were governors not so lily-white and locked in denial. This discovery phase seeks to explore slavery down to its murky depths.


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