Slaves essentially built America — although they were bought and sold like cattle — and the unwilling servants proved much more valuable than ever given credit.
That fact could not have been made more abundantly clear after the New York Times uncovered documents last month that revealed that one of the country’s foremost insurance companies sold policies covering slaves.
New York Life, the nation’s third-largest life insurance company — which opened in Manhattan’s financial district in 1845 and had a board of trustees populated by some of the wealthiest merchants, bankers and railroad magnates — had found sales to be sluggish and decided to look south.
There, in Richmond, Virginia, the documents showed an enterprising New York Life agent sold more than 30 policies in a single day in February 1846.
Soon, advertisements began appearing in newspapers from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Louisville as the New York-based company encouraged Southerners to buy insurance to protect their slaves — their most precious commodity.
Alive, slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets. Dead, they were considered virtually worthless. Life insurance changed that calculus, allowing slave owners to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of an untimely death.
The revelation has many — including organizations that have worked for reparations — calling for New York Life to pay for their unconscionable actions.
“New York Life, like many other American corporations profited from the enslavement of Africans forcibly brought to this country,” said Raymond Winbush, a research professor and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
“Like the recent events at Georgetown University, their current obligation is to create a system of restitution for the descendants of those enslaved by their masters as a matter of compensatory ‘historical justice,’” Winbush said.
Last September, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia announced that the school would compensate the descendants of its former slaves, including those descended from the 272 slaves it sold to prevent financial ruin.
The university said it would issue an apology, name two buildings and a memorial in their honor, and offer slave descendants the same admission preference that the children and grandchildren of alumni receive.
The school did not offer scholarships, but based the compensation in part on the recommendations of a university committee, which the nearly 600 descendants underscored that they were not invited to participate.
“We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary,” Sandra Green Thomas, one of the slave descendants, said in a statement.
More than a dozen universities, including Brown, Harvard and the University of Virginia, have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade.
But Craig Steven Wilder and Alfred L. Brophy, two historians who have studied universities and slavery, said they knew of none that had offered preferential status in admissions to the descendants of slaves.
Further, banks absorbed by JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo allowed Southerners seeking loans to use their slaves as collateral and took possession of some of them when their owners defaulted.
Like New York Life, Aetna and US Life also sold insurance policies to slave owners, particularly those whose laborers engaged in hazardous work in mines, lumber mills, turpentine factories and steamboats in the industrializing sectors of the South, according to the New York Times report.
US Life, a subsidiary of AIG, declined to comment on its slave policy sales. Wachovia, one of Wells Fargo’s predecessor companies, has apologized for its historic ties to slavery, as have JPMorgan Chase and Aetna.
More than 40 other firms, mostly based in the South, sold such policies, too, though documentation is scarce and most closed their doors generations ago.
New York Life survived.
“The National African-American Reparations Commission, which is convened and administered by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, will be sending a letter to the president and CEO and chairman of the board of New York Life requesting a meeting to discuss this matter,” said Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World, which convenes a State of the Black World Conference.
Daniels and his organization has continued to push for legislation on reparations and has requested that Democratic New York state Sen. James Sanders and Democratic state Assemblyman Charles Barron convene a public hearing on the New York Life insurance matter.
“As these types of revelations are increasingly resurfacing, it would seem appropriate that the National African American Reparations Commission play a role in addressing them,” Daniels said. “This is a matter for longer and deeper discussion.”