Banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo accepted Slaves as Collateral
Rachel Swarns of the New York Times joins us to discuss what she discovered when she followed the money trail of one of the nation’s top financial institutions all the back to the 19th century.
.. RACHEL: In 1847, Godfrey died in the Midlothian Coal Mines. We still don’t know exactly how he died, but in New York Life’s accounting of the deaths that happened, they simply described, “burned to death.”
New York Life was good for its policy. And Nicholas Mills put in a claim and within months of Nicholas Mills’ claims— three months, actually— they paid up: $337. The folks at New York Life collected a lot of information, but not information that his family, today, might wanna know, or people looking at the institution of slavery might wanna know. They did not record his last name. They did not record where he was, or if he was, buried. Simply “burned to death” and “$337 payment.”
CHENJERAI: This payment to a Southern slave owner wasn’t coming from Charleston, or Richmond, it was coming from New York.
.. And slaves were often used by people who went to a bank, wanted to get a loan, and had to, as we often do today, show some property for collateral, and would say, “okay, I got these 20 guys here. This is my collateral.”
That was a very pernicious system because, if you think it through, what happens when that guy defaults? Well, we know what happens if you default on your car loan today. The bank will come take it. The same thing happened back then.
JACK: Wait a minute. There were slave repo men?
RACHEL: There were slave repo men.
It’s very simple. You default on your loan, you have given up some collateral, the banks then become the owners of that property. And so the banks became owners of human beings, of these enslaved people. They took them, repossessed them, and tried to sell them, because it’s just like in foreclosures, you know, they don’t wanna hold on to these distressed properties. You know, they’re not in the real estate business. Banks are not really in the slave owning business.
RACHEL: We are talking about, you know, there, there are contemporary banks that have this history, you know.
CHENJERAI: Could you, could you name them?
RACHEL: So some of the banks that were involved in this business, banks who accepted slaves as collateral were J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
.. CHENJERAI: So this how the descendants are responding? How are the insurance companies responding to this?
RACHEL: You know, no one really wants a call from a reporter saying, talking about…. their ties to slavery. It’s, it’s just not … A lot of people are looking-
RACHEL: … for coverage from the New York Times. This is not an issue where anyone is happy about a connection.
This information about slave insurance and these records came out in the 2000s, when states and municipalities required companies to disclose their ties to this period of time. So, you know, there was some trying to say, “well this is old news, there’s no reason to delve into this.” In some ways, it’s no surprise that-
.. There was a lawsuit that was filed particularly against New York Life and other companies that was dismissed in 2004, after a judge ruled that the black plaintiffs had been unable to establish a direct link to the companies that they had sued, and that the statute of limitations had run out.
With the advance of genealogy and the digitization of records, it’s now possible, difficult, but possible, to trace these people, and their descendants to the present day.
.. JACK: And in terms of just Americans coming to grips with this history, how should we- how do we tell that story?
RACHEL: You know, I think, with a lot of these issues, you know, there is the moral question, right? And what do we do with that, as, as Americans? It is simply true that African Americans were not paid for labor, right? For a long time. (laughing).
.. Ta-Nehisi Coates obviously did that really provocative piece about reparations and arguing for reparations. And he actually was at a conference and he was talking about that debate in American society and saying… You know people were saying, “Well, what would it look like?” and he said, “You know, we can’t really talk about what reparations looks like if there is no consensus that there was a debt.”
And I think that’s where America is right now is trying to figure out is there a debt? And part of the work that I do, and the work that a lot of people are doing in this area and looking at these kinds of connections between slavery and today, is just illuminating those kinds of connections.