When I started reading this short article in the NYTimes I had no idea what to expect. By the time I'd finished reading it I throught it deserved to be read by more people. That's why I'm posting it here. I have to say that I didn't learn any of this stuff in my history classes in high school or college.
January 31, 2005
Investors who visit the J. P. Morgan Chase Web site these days are finding more than the usual corporate news. The bank has posted a letter of apology and the results of an eye-opening research project, which found that two of its predecessor banks had participated in the slave trade, accepting about 13,000 enslaved people as collateral for loans issued in Louisiana in the mid-19th century. When the borrowers defaulted on their loans, the banks took ownership of some slaves and presumably sold them.
J. P. Morgan, which in addition to apologizing set up a scholarship fund for African-Americans in Louisiana, carried out this research to comply with a Chicago ordinance that requires companies doing business with the city government to divulge any links to slavery. A similar statute covers insurance companies operating in California, where several of the country's largest insurers have divulged links to slavery. These disclosures are exposing 18th- and 19th-century Northern businesses that sought to profit from the slave trade even after slavery had been outlawed in the North.
The disclosure laws grew out of an early attempt to seek damages from present-day companies for the misdeeds of their historical predecessors. The courts never took the reparations argument seriously, but the revelations of Northern corporate involvement were timely in the civic sense. They coincided with a revival of interest in slavery in the North, where many Americans had grown up believing that slavery had been confined to the cotton fields of the South.
When the new business disclosures are discussed publicly and integrated into the historical record, Americans will have been made aware that the tendrils of slavery spanned the length of the country and extended into the Northern financial elite. The inclusion of records of long-buried slave transactions on corporate Web sites shows that the process of reappraisal is well under way.