Documenting Links Between Financial and Insurance Institutions and Slavery

On June 7, 2022, the House Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and all House Subcommittee Chairs, sent requests to the nation’s top banks, property and casualty insurance companies, and life insurance companies inquiring about their historical involvement in the financing of chattel slavery in the United States.

HAI has undertaken slavery era disclosure research for financial, insurance, and educational entities in the United States and Europe for upwards of fifteen years. We appreciate the efforts of American companies working to expand our collective understanding of the pervasive nature of the institution of slavery. The resulting discoveries demonstrate that, while we often conceive of slavery as confined to Southern states, in reality it was connected to the entire American financial system and helped build fortunes across the country and the world.

Assiento Contract
Great Britain and Spanish signed the Asiento contract a provision of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 This granted Great Britain a monopoly on transporting enslaved people to Spanish colonies in the Americas Source Wikimedia

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States on December 6, 1865. Prior to this, many financial institutions—including state banks, regional banks, and insurance companies—had links to the trans-Atlantic and intra-American slave trade. Some firms enslaved people or had direct involvement in the slave trade. Other institutions provided capital to individuals or businesses that enslaved people. Many invested in bonds from Southern states that held people in slavery, or traded in goods produced by enslaved people, such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and rice. During the course of the 1800s and 1900s, these public and private firms merged or coalesced into today’s largest U.S. and global financial institutions. Unfortunately, many modern firms remain unaware that their history—and prosperity—is intertwined with the institution of slavery.

In the early 2000s, HAI began providing historical research services to financial institutions that were required to submit Economic Disclosure Statement (EDS) and Affidavits with the City of Chicago. In 2002, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance requiring entities conducting business with the city to disclose their historical connections to the slave trade, and specifically, to provide records of investments or profits from slavery or insurance policies of enslavers. Among the information required in the regulatory filing are the full “names of any and all slaves or slaveholders” linked to the firms or their predecessor entities. Entities that fail to provide this information risk having their contracts with the city voided.

HAI Slavery Disclosure Infographic

1850M Slave Schedules
This 1850 slave schedule from Madison County Kentucky lists the names and ages of enslaved people Source HAI

A 2005 Wall Street Journal article describes one of HAI’s earliest slavery disclosure research projects and chronicles our work in investigating one financial institution’s historical connections to slavery. This independent historical research, which entailed over 3,000 hours of research, involved a team of over a dozen professionally trained and experienced research historians who contacted or visited over 75 archival facilities. This research effort identified over 13,000 enslaved people linked to predecessor banks.

Since then, our team has worked with numerous financial, insurance, and educational entities in the United States and in Europe to reconstruct the dark recesses of their past. For many clients in the United States, we have confirmed that the corporate or financial entity and its predecessors were founded well after the United States abolished slavery of people of African descent. For others, we have undertaken detailed corporate genealogies of all predecessor firms founded prior to 1866. In these cases, our research becomes more complex, requiring a thorough search of existing corporate records and histories, financial ledgers, and property records held in private and public archives.

St. Louis Courthouse
Historical research in national and international archives libraries and other repositories such as the courthouse in St Louis Missouri provides important details about businesses ties to historic slavery Source Wikimedia

While reviewing these historical records, HAI researchers examine a number of questions to help identify any potential links to slavery: Did the firm enslave people or participate directly in the slave trade? Did financial institutions make any loans to institutions or individuals that enslaved people? Did insurance companies sell policies to compensate enslavers if the people they enslaved were injured or killed? Did the company invest in institutions that used enslaved labor, such as sugar and cotton plantations, or did it invest in bonds from Southern states or Southern firms that enslaved people, such as railroad companies? Did it trade in goods produced by enslaved people?