Chicago companies must reveal past ties to slave trade or risk losing business

CHICAGO — The City Council was about to vote on an ordinance requiring all companies doing business with the city to reveal any past "investments or profits from the slave industry." Alderman Burton Natarus made it clear how he expected his colleagues to come down on the issue.

He insisted on a roll-call vote, "in which everybody says 'aye' or 'nay' and stands up for the right thing to do," Natarus announced at the council meeting last week.

Two of the city's 50 aldermen were not present, and Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly and uncharacteristically excused them. That left 48. Four abstained from the vote.

The final tally: 44 ayes, 0 nays.

With the passage, Chicago — whose 1.1 million black residents make up one-third of the city's population — became the first city in the United States to require all businesses to research and report on any ties they had to the slave trade. The effort is likely to affect a handful of insurance companies, perhaps a railroad or two and a couple of banks.

The vote seemed so clearly political, however, and the Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance so lacking in teeth, it is unclear what, if any, effect the law might have on its sponsor's ultimate goal: securing reparations for the descendants of slaves.

If companies "don't come clean, they won't get anything," Alderman Dorothy Tillman, a vocal supporter of reparations, told reporters after the vote on her proposal. She suggested that companies that had conducted slave-related business, often through predecessor companies, could be shut out of city contracts even if they do acknowledge such histories.

Alderman Edward Burke, whom many consider the second-most powerful Chicago politician after Daley, announced from the council floor that CSX Railroad — a company whose predecessors are believed to have used slave labor — would not be granted zoning approvals it is seeking until the company pays reparations, even though such compensation is not included in the ordinance.

"If they start threatening companies ... then we may be talking about extortion," said Robert Bennett, former dean of Northwestern University Law School.

The national debate over reparations for African Americans has simmered off and on for years, with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., doing much to keep it alive by introducing a bill to study the issue in every congressional session since 1989. His bill has never been passed.

The reparations movement has picked up some steam in recent years after compensation was awarded to Holocaust survivors and Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and proponents have begun to focus their efforts.

Two years ago, the California Legislature passed the Slaveholder Insurance Policy Act, which requires insurers who did business during the slavery era to research their records and report the names of slaves they insured and the slaveholders who took out the policies.

The majority of California insurers reported that they had been incorporated after slavery was outlawed, according to a report by the California Department of Insurance. A few others said they had conducted business during the period but could find no records relating to slave policies. Eight companies said they had issued life-insurance policies on slaves and released the names of 614 slaves and 433 slaveholders.

Supporters of the ordinance are eagerly awaiting the filings of several companies, including CSX Railroad and FleetBoston Financial Corp. Both companies are defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed this spring alleging that they, or their predecessor companies, profited from slave labor.

One of the founders of a FleetBoston predecessor company, the Providence Bank of Rhode Island, owned slave ships, though the company says there is no evidence the bank was involved in the slave trade. FleetBoston, through a trust, recently received a $27 million city subsidy to construct a 31-story building in the city's financial district, the Loop.

CSX, some of whose predecessor companies are believed to have used slaves in building their lines, has a large facility on Chicago's South Side and, like many businesses, has sought financial and political help from the city.

When such companies reveal their past, ordinance supporters argue, they may not receive the warm welcomes of the past.

"I'm sure there would be a great deal of reluctance on the part of many members of the council to do business with some of the companies ... unless the company states that it regrets what it's done and lays out the steps it has made to become a good corporate citizen," Alderman Burke said.

Sean McManamy, spokesman for the American Insurance Association, said the group's member companies that conducted business with Chicago would adhere to its rules.

But, he added, "Can you go back and right a societal wrong by opening up insurance contracts from 150, 200 years ago? Certainly there was plenty of societal guilt to go around with respect to slavery. Will this help? I don't know."