Seeking More Than Apologies for Slavery

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

It was a brief mea culpa, a few short paragraphs typed on a sheet of paper. "On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African Americans and people of African descent," Chairman and chief executive G. Kennedy Thompson said after a study found that his company had purchased two banks that exploited slaves.

Wachovia revealed on June 1 that one of the banks put hundreds of slaves to work on railroads and another accepted more than 100 more as collateral on defaulted loans in the 1800s. Wachovia, one of the nation's largest banks, was required by the city of Chicago to investigate its past to participate in the redevelopment of a housing project on the city's South Side.

Chicago's law is the result of a campaign by a network of black politicians, lawyers, professors and reparations activists who say they want Americans to know that slave purchases were often financed with bank loans and insured.

Since 2000, when the first disclosure law was enacted by the state of California, similar laws have been passed in Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia. New Orleans is considering a version of the law, and numerous other city lawmakers have expressed interest, said Dorothy J. Tillman, the Chicago alderman who sponsored the ordinance.

Disclosure laws in the past have required companies to reveal their ties to the Holocaust and South Africa's former apartheid government. Tillman said Americans deserve to know that companies they rely on for mortgages, credit cards and insurance supported the slave trade with similar loans.

"We have a history that's not being told," she said. "We want our history to be told in every book and every school -- our true history."

The activists see the apologies, in some cases, as possible preludes to reparation payments. But Wachovia, and every other company that has acknowledged ties to slavery, has declined to make any such payments. A spokesman for Aetna, which had a reparations lawsuit thrown out, said the insurance company believes that no court would grant reparations for a crime, no matter how tragic, that occurred so long ago.

Reparations to African Americans are extraordinarily rare. The $1.8 million award in 1994 to victims of the riot and massacre in Rosewood, Fla., is one of a few.

In that 1923 incident, white authorities and citizens killed 26 black men, women and children and buried them in a mass grave. About 355 black residents were driven from their homes as the community burned.

The U.S. government has never apologized or paid reparations to the descendants of slaves. Other groups, such as Japanese Americans who were forced into camps during World War II, have been more successful. Swiss banks paid reparations to Holocaust victims after the banks acknowledged they had accepted money and goods stolen from Jews by Nazis during World War II.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in 2002 showed that nine out of 10 white Americans said the government should not make cash reparations payments, while half of black respondents said it should.

Sixty-two percent of white respondents also believed that the government should not apologize to African Americans for underwriting slavery, while 68 percent of African Americans said it should.

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