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Working With Chicago Requires a Disclosure on Slavery

Policy: The city is the first to demand that companies report any links to the trade.


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 F. Natarus made it quite 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 African American residents make up about 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, 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," Alderwoman Dorothy J. Tillman, a vocal supporter of reparations, told reporters after the vote on her proposal. She went so far as to suggest that companies that might have conducted slave-related business, often through predecessor companies, could be shut out of city contracts even if they do acknowledge such histories.

Alderman Edward M. Burke, arguably 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.

"It's all pretty bizarre," he added. "It's politics. There is a public interest in having history about slavery, but this is a strange way of going about compiling that history."

The national debate over reparations for African Americans has simmered off and on for years, with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (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, however.

The reparations movement has picked up at least 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 vast 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 revealed the names of 614 insured slaves and 433 slaveholders.

The department has published the findings on its Web site but plans no further action. The law requires only that insurers disclose their activities, not that they pay reparations.

The Chicago ordinance is based on the California law, but goes a step further in that it requires all businesses with city contracts, not just insurance companies, to research and report any slave trade history, with documentation to be filed with the city's Department of Purchasing. Beyond that, it is not clear what will happen with the information.

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

One of the founders of a FleetBoston predecessor, the Providence Bank of Rhode Island, owned slave ships, though the company says there is no evidence the bank itself 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 rail lines, has a large facility on Chicago's South Side and, like many businesses, has sought financial and political help from the city.

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