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Seeking More Than Apologies for Slavery
But as corporate leaders have come under pressure from some state and local governments, and the extent of their companies' participation in slavery is revealed, they are feeling compelled to apologize.
"We know we can't change the past, and we can't make up for the wrongs of slavery," Thompson, the Wachovia chairman, said in his statement. "But we can learn from our past and begin a dialogue about slavery and the experience of African Americans in our country."
Wachovia spokesman Scott Silvestri said the company is talking to the NAACP, the Urban League and other civil rights groups about how to proceed. "We didn't want to have a donation or gift right out of a gate," he said. "We wanted to think about what's the best way to address that."
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard University law professor and reparations activist whom Tillman consulted to help craft the Chicago ordinance, said research required by the law has revealed involvement in slavery by companies that have historically denied it. "Investigations are turning up substantial evidence of connections between their corporate success and their exploitation of slaves in the 18th and 19th century," he said.
Ogletree said the disclosures and apologies could be a turning point in convincing the courts and average Americans that reparations are warranted.
A 111-page report released by Wachovia along with its apology showed that a bank it acquired, the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co., put 529 slaves to work on railroads. Another, the Bank of Charleston, accepted 162 slaves when clients defaulted on loans. Wachovia contracted a group in Chantilly, Va., called the History Factory to search its records.
In 2002, Aetna was forced to acknowledge its role in insuring slave owners in the 1850s against the deaths of slaves after Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a reparations activist, discovered the policies.
Through the mid-1800s, insurance companies often paid claims when slaves escaped, then would place ads in publications offering rewards to bounty hunters to track them down and bring them back, even if they had escaped to free states. The slaves would be resold.
In January, J.P. Morgan Chase, the nation's second-largest bank, apologized for the role its subsidiaries played in using more than 10,000 slaves as collateral for loans and accepting more than 1,000 slaves when their owners defaulted. J.P. Morgan's apology also was prompted by the Chicago disclosure law.
Bank of America Corp. is fighting accusations at Chicago City Hall that it did not disclose its ties to slavery on a sworn affidavit. The city is reviewing evidence showing slave ownership by John Brown -- a former director of Providence Bank, which became Fleet-Boston, a bank later acquired by Bank of America.
A host of other companies fought the lawsuit, filed in 2002, after investigations found links to slavery. They include investors Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Brown Brothers Harriman; insurers American International Group Inc. and Lloyds of London; tobacco makers R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and Liggett Group Inc.; and the railroad firms Union Pacific Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. A similar lawsuit against the federal government seeking $100 million was dismissed in 1995 by a federal appeals court.
No dollar figure was mentioned for the 2002 lawsuit, but an estimate of the value of work provided by slaves was placed at $40 million, which today could amount to more than $1 trillion, according to the lawsuit.