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Council to Vote on Slavery Disclosure Law

Measure would require firms doing business with the city to report any historical links.

May 16, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council will vote today on whether to require every company doing business with the city to report whether it ever profited from slavery.

The ordinance would be difficult to enforce, but supporters are heralding it as a potent symbol in the movement to establish reparations for descendants of slaves.

"There has to be some recompense," said April Lawrence, student body president of Los Angeles Southwest College, after testifying Wednesday before a council committee considering the measure. "There are many, many facets to reparations and one of them is to regain dignity. We can't get our history properly documented without knowing the truth behind everything."

If the council approves the measure, Los Angeles would be the second U.S. city to require such disclosure. In Chicago, which passed a similar law in the fall, no businesses have yet reported any history of slave profits, according to Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for Chicago's procurement department.

Councilman Nate Holden, who proposed the Los Angeles ordinance, called it an important step in reminding the public of how slavery has shaped society.

"I think it's going to raise the sensitivity level," said Holden, comparing the measure to efforts to seek reparations for Holocaust victims. "I think they'll be reminded of the fact, 'Never again.' "

The law would require any company doing business with the city to research its records and sign an affidavit stating whether it or its predecessor companies ever profited from slavery. If a company found any records, it would be required to disclose them to the city.

Those companies would not be barred from working for the city, but Holden said he would ask them to consider donating money for scholarships or other programs for African Americans.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who seconded Holden's motion, said she hoped the law would encourage companies to contribute to projects in poor communities.

"My focus will be on creating an opportunity out of this," she said.

It is unclear what businesses, if any, would be affected by the Los Angeles law. Supporters said railroad companies and development interests are the most likely to have ties to slavery-era investments.

"Many, many companies are going to say, 'We just came into existence the last 20, 30, 40 years,' " acknowledged Barbara Ratliff, an attorney who testified Wednesday in support of the ordinance. "But just about every aspect of business was touched by slavery. It wasn't just the South."

The law's chances are uncertain. Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes a large African American community in South Los Angeles, said he did not yet know enough about the proposal to take a position.

A spokesman for Mayor James K. Hahn said the mayor needed to hear more about it before taking a stance.

Even if it passes, the ordinance would make no provision for investigating companies and the city would have little recourse if a business chose not to be forthright about its history.

But supporters of the measure said they hope companies would comply to avoid bad publicity down the road.

"Sooner or later, someone is going to perform this study," said Rev. Leonard Jackson, associate pastor at First AME Church, which was founded in the early 1800s by a former slave. "I think it would be best for companies to come forward now."

The Los Angeles ordinance would be the second effort in California to uncover links to slavery-era profits. In 2000, the state passed a law requiring insurance companies to disclose whether they sold policies on slaves. Since then, eight companies have reported they had such policies and provided the names of 614 insured slaves.

While the insurance industry did not fight that measure -- which required only that the information be reported -- some are worried that slavery-era business disclosures will open the door to a barrage of lawsuits from descendants of slaves seeking compensation.

"Slavery was a huge stain on our country's history," said Nicole Mahrt, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Assn. "Tying up the courts, though, I don't think can change that."

Mahrt noted that slavery was legal at the time insurance companies sold the policies.

"If the law forces insurers to pay for moral wrongdoing, ultimately the ones who will be hurt are those holding policies right now," she said. "You have to ask yourself, 'What problem are you trying to solve, and who is paying for it?' "

But backers of the Los Angeles measure say companies that once made money off human trafficking need to be held accountable.

While finding out which businesses profited from slavery could assist efforts to seek reparations, supporters of the proposed law said that, for now, they are simply looking for information.

"People may be buying products from companies that made profits off of slavery," said David Horne, executive director of the California African American Political Institute at Cal State Northridge, adding that those companies "may have helped to support somebody in our family getting lynched."

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