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.

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.

A judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois threw out the complaint, saying it was brought "more than a century after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery." But the judge, Charles R. Norgle Sr., dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning it could be amended and filed again.

Reparations activists say that former slaves and their descendants sought restitution years ago but were turned away by hostile courts.

I.H. Dickerson of Nashville founded the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1897. His quest for reparations ended when the federal postal service accused him of receiving a money order under false pretenses. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1901. His assistant, Callie D. House, was later tried, but the outcome is unknown.

Today's activists are more influential. In addition to Tillman and Ogletree, they include Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who sponsors legislation to study reparations proposals for African Americans during each Congress, and a host of other public officials, groups and historians.

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N'COBRA, was formed a year after the United States acknowledged wrongdoing and paid reparations to Japanese Americans.

Farmer-Paellmann, a former N'COBRA law clerk, is credited with the idea of challenging such corporations as Aetna and J.P. Morgan Chase to expose their ties to slavery. In the mid-1990s, she began researching the companies' pasts and publicized her findings.

Aetna Chairman John W. Rowe responded in April 2000. "The fact that Aetna had written policies on slaves more than 140 years ago was brought to the attention of Aetna's management. They were deeply disappointed and embarrassed."

Farmer-Paellmann said the apology was worth her work then and now.

"It's to get them to apologize and also ask them to pay restitution," she said. A trust fund was established at Carver Federal Savings Bank in Harlem, but attracted few donations, she said.

"Why is it important to pay restitution? Historically, the lack of financial capital has been a barrier to black progress," she said. "It's harder for us to get bank loans, and red lining is a vestige of slavery. It's about them helping us to heal the wounds they historically caused."