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Md. Bill Looks at Business Of People as Property

Insurance in the 19th century protected slaveholders from financial loss.
Insurance in the 19th century protected slaveholders from financial loss. (Courtesy Of New York Life)
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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

An unsettling legacy of slavery hidden in the corporate archives of insurance companies that do business in Maryland would be unearthed by a bill moving through the General Assembly.

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Property insurers that issued policies to protect slaveholders from the death, injury or even escape of their slaves would be required to disclose the names of the slaves, their owners and anything else their records reveal.

The policies, which are likely to have covered slaves on ships and on land once they were put to work on the tobacco farms of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, would have to be posted on the Web site of the state's insurance agency.

The slave-insurance bill passed the Senate unanimously last week, sponsored by a Baltimore Democrat who calls herself an amateur genealogist of her own family's slave ancestry.

A flurry of lawmakers rushed on the Senate floor to sign on as co-sponsors, intrigued by the chance to follow last year's resolution expressing "profound regret" for Maryland's role in the slave trade with another effort at reconciliation. The legislation is pending in the House of Delegates. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not yet looked at it, a spokesman said.

It is modeled after similar laws in California and Illinois that have led some of the country's major banks and insurers, including Wachovia and Aetna, to apologize for writing policies that were commonplace and profitable two centuries ago but today seem gruesome.

Maryland would not punish insurance companies by requiring them to offer legal compensation to slave descendants. But scholars and lawmakers say the records that are likely to turn up, as spare as they may be, will further clarify how slavery figured in Maryland's economy before the Civil War.

"The question is, what's the value in knowing this," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), the bill's lead sponsor. An ancestor on her mother's side was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1857 and served three terms in that state's legislature.

Gladden called the effort to mine insurance records "non-confrontational" and a "natural progression" from the legislature's apology for slavery. "It's filling in the blanks of histories that have been neglected for centuries." She said that learning who owned the slaves is less important than who the slaves were.

In 1860, Maryland was home to 87,189 slaves, roughly 15 percent of the state's population, although free blacks may have been more numerous. The tobacco industry was declining and moving to more southern states, but slaves labored in shipyards, factories, on dairy and wheat farms and on plantations doing domestic work.

The effort to bring centuries-old records into public view that could cast a poor light on past business practices has drawn muted reaction from Maryland's insurance industry. Most carriers took no position on the bill. The American Insurance Association, a Washington-based national trade group that represents major property and casualty insurers, came out in support of it.

Tammy Velasquez, vice president and director of state affairs at the association, said recovering the records would require extensive research and be impossible for some companies, given that some of their forerunners had different names and corporate ownership. "The original companies have been gobbled up and merged like so many companies in corporate America," she said. But she said her members have pledged to comply.

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