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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 SWARNS: I was focusing on the sale of one boy, a 13-year-old boy, who was sold by the Jesuits, who were slave owners and who also founded and ran Georgetown [University]. And he was sold off to Louisiana and I was following his footsteps.
JACK: That’s Rachel Swarns, contributing writer to the New York Times. In 2016, she brought national attention to the story about how Georgetown University used the profits of a slave sale to stay afloat….
It’s great reporting… if you haven’t read it you should go check it out, But that’s not why she came by the studio to talk to us today… she came to tell us a different story. Something she stumbled upon while reading those old documents that mentioned this enslaved 13 year old boy…
RACHEL: You got this kid, Cornelius, right? And he is listed on a shipping manifest for a ship called the Catherine Jackson.
I was looking at, you know, the ship, the journey, and I realized that there were all these financial entanglements, um, that I never really thought about before.
So there was a guy who was on the Virginia side who was involved with, getting these folks on the ship, and was paid for that. There was a merchant on the other side who handled, the slaves, once they got there.
And, that merchant not only helped the buyer with this shipment of human assets, but also, provided financing for whatever kind of crop the guy had. There were banks that some of these guys used and then that took slaves as collateral.
When I, I looked at this, I said, "Wow, there is a whole financial network that was involved with this one slave sale."
And once I started thinking about that, I started thinking about other institutions.
CHENJERAI: And one of these other institutions is still around today. In fact it’s not that far from Rachel’s office at the New York Times.
It’s called the New York Life Insurance Company.
The company was founded in 1845… and sales were slow at first…
It wasn’t until the following year when the company found a new line of business … that things really took off…
That new line of business... was slave insurance.
CHENJERAI: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JACK: I’m Jack Hitt.
CHENJERAI: And this is Uncivil.
JACK: Where we ransack America’s history
CHENJERAI: And learn that the past…is only what we choose to remember…
JACK: Back in 1846... when New York Life was getting started... Life insurance was an experimental new financial product… New York Life and the other companies selling it didn’t really know how it would work out or who would buy it … So they just hired agents to work their contacts and find wealthy customers.
And that’s how they caught onto the idea of insuring slaves ...when one of those early agents had a very successful day…here’s Rachel….
RACHEL: So in February of 1846, a guy in Richmond Virginia, an agent for New York Life, sells 30 slave insurance policies in one day.
CHENJERAI: With typical life insurance, the company pays the survivors of the person who died. But enslaved people were treated as human property. So the owners took out policies on their property and if there was damage, they got paid.
New York Life wasn’t the first company to offer this type insurance but when they realized it was taking off… they were all in...
JACK: Was there like a specific person who saw that market and sent a report back to New York saying, “Whoa! You know, there’s some stuff happening down here in South Carolina we should get on.”
RACHEL: I never found anything like that. What I do know is that you know, early on some of their agents in the South began having good luck in selling these things and then you begin to see this expansion. And whether there was communication between these agents saying, “Hey, guys, you know, this looks pretty hot here,” um - I don't know.
But following that, you start seeing these newspaper advertisements around the South saying, you know, secure your investment.
JACK: So, by the late 1840s, slave insurance became a major profit center and the driving force establishing nearly a dozen companies.
Because in those days, enslaved men and women were some of the most valuable assets that Southern business people owned. So they wanted to protect themselves against the risk of losing those assets.
And sometimes the risk was high… because the work that slaves did wasn’t limited to cotton fields…
RACHEL: Most Americans don't realize how varied the landscape for slavery was. We think of, you know, Gone With the Wind, and the manor and the rolling fields, and all of that.
RACHEL: Um, and there was some of that-
JACK: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RACHEL: But there were also, you know, this industrial segment of the South, where enslaved people did very, important, but dangerous work. Steamboats were a big thing, working the furnaces on steam boats and working on steam boats. That might seem like a nice thing to do for us today, to take a nice ride up the Mississippi, but, there were drownings, burnings. In the coal mines, you had explosions, poisonous gassing, that kind of thing. Saw mills, you can imagine it yourself. You've got blades spinning around. It, it was, it was those kinds of, of industries. And these individuals were among the most valuable assets that a white family might own. And so there began to be a concern about, well, what happens, you know?
JACK: You were insured, not because you, your life was at risk, but because you were so valuable, it would be hard to replace you.
RACHEL: That's exactly right.
Now, this was risky too, for the company, right? Because, you don't want, you know, the kind of, “I insure my restaurant and all of a sudden it goes up in flames, and I collect the (laughs) payment,“ right?
CHENJERAI & JACK: [rueful chuckling]
They didn't want that happening. So they tried to put in place some safeguards.
So they have doctors who check out the slaves and make sure they’re healthy. They also didn't insure the full amount of the slave. They, they wanted to make sure that this enslaved person was worth more alive to the slave owner than dead. The insurance company would insure that person for three quarters of that amount.
CHENJERAI: And to really understand how this insurance works, you have to put yourself in the mind of a slave owner, as sickening as that is…. Rachel told us the story of one owner… named Nicholas Mills…
RACHEL: Nicholas Mills was a wealthy guy in Virginia. A wealthy slave owner in Virginia, who owned shares in a coal mining company, the Midlothian Coal Mining Company in Midlothian, Virginia. And this was a particularly deadly business. You had explosions in the mines. You had poisonous gases in the mines. Several years before New York Life ventured into this market, coal magnates in this part of the country had lost much of their human property to one of these kinds of explosions. And so, Nicholas Mills decided that he was going to protect his investment. And he purchased policies on more than 20 of his enslaved workers. Most of these insurance policies were on the order of 400 to 600 dollars. He, purchased a policy on a guy by the name of Godfrey. Godfrey was 50-years-old… he was someone who worked in the mines.
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.
Even though slavery had been outlawed in Northern states, it was a national industry. In states that didn’t explicitly practice it, there were still plenty of businesses invested in the forced labor plantations and the larger slave economy … And there was no better embodiment of this than the New Yorker who was the President of New York Life….
RACHEL: His name was James DePeyster Ogden and, not surprisingly, he was a cotton merchant. We think about New York and the North as if there was this bright red line between North and South on the issue of slavery. But, slavery really was um, you know, the engine that powered a lot of the industry in New York City. And so even though there was a kind of Northern distaste for slavery and sometimes they would describe it as, you know, “a necessary evil.” It was also essential, and there were newspaper articles where they defended the institution and said people who were abolitionists or who opposed it were you know, threatening, you know, the Union. Um, and it was certainly, they were certainly threatening their economic interests.
The president of New York Life was a good example of that. He was a guy who grew up in a household where slaves worked, And he was someone who, you know, actively benefited from um, cotton and the plantation system. So, in some ways, it's not surprising at all that this decision to move into this business occurred while he was president.
JACK: And it wasn’t just business tycoons in Manhattan profiting off slavery and slave insurance. All kinds of people were cashing in on this new market….
RACHEL: the agents get a commission, you know, they sell a slave insurance policy, they get a commission. There are doctors who are paid for examining each of these, um, individuals.
JACK: Right. You know, like, so like when I get insurance, I have to go in and get a physical, right?
RACHEL: So, there were doctors who got paid, in the South to examine the slaves and make sure that they weren't gonna die on the company in, in two days or so. And they got paid too. I think it was $2 an exam.
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.
And, and these were banks, that allowed Southerners seeking loans to use their slaves as collateral. These contemporary institutions absorbed smaller banks who were involved in this business back in the 19th century.
JACK: After the break, the slave insurance business faces an unlikely reckoning and New York Life is forced to deal with their past.
CHENJERAI: As the United States approached the lead up to the Civil War… New York Life started reconsidering its involvement in slave insurance, but not because Frederick Douglas talked ‘em out of it, or because abolitionists sermons were convincing…The choice to abandon this new market… was strictly a business decision…
Here’s Rachel Swarns again:
RACHEL SWARNS: The company ended up paying out nearly as much in death claims, about $232,000 in today's dollars, as it received in annual payments.
And so on April 19th, 1848, New York Life's board voted to discontinue the sale of slave insurance policies.
It would actually take about six years for the last slave insurance policy to lapse.
CHENJERAI: It’s been over 150 years since New York Life got out of this business... But the records of these policies still remain. For years they were private. We couldn’t have seen them, but now we can.
RACHEL: These records are available at the New York Public Library, some of them. And, you can make an appointment and you can go, and there are these old, kind of yellowing pages, cloth binding that is, basically falling apart. And, you know, in this kind of spidery script, the names of the owner, the name of the slave, the occupation that the person was in, the age of the person who was insured, where they lived.
I've gotten used to reading these materials, um, but for a first-timer, it's, it's just so jarring and disorienting to see people, human beings, described this way.
Policy number 447 covered Nathan York, who was a slave who also worked in the coal mines in Virginia. Policy number 1141 insured a slave named Warwick, who worked the furnaces on a Kentucky steamboat. Policy number 1150 covered Anthony, who labored in a saw mill in North Carolina. And this was the kind of range of industries, and individuals who you would see in these ledger books.
These ledgers are very spare. You have Godfrey, who burned to death, policy number 1042. Philip Swan, who also died in the coal mine, policy number 228. There were drownings, people who died in, you know, explosions. Um, and all of them, on this ledger sheet have the, the dollar figure, um, that was paid out by the company to the slave owner.
JACK: Rachel wondered about the descendants of these enslaved people. And whether they had any idea what happened to their ancestors… She set out to find them
RACHEL: A lot of the people who are listed in the insurance policies are only described by their first names. And so it's very difficult to trace them. So I started looking at the slave owners and at these coal mining companies. And I found, there's a guy by the name of Nathan York, who was a slave, who I was, who was on my list just because I had his name.
I enlisted a genealogist from Ancestry to help me and she found an African American church in Midlothian that dated back to this time. And she said “maybe there's something interesting there.” And I went and looked, and that church, happily they had a website with a little history page. The history page had a list of founders and Nathan York was one of the founders. And then I got lucky.
I called the church, um, and someone said, "Oh you need to speak to the church historian." And I said, "Have you heard these names, I'm looking for these individuals." And she said what’s the name? And I told her the name and she said, "Oh my goodness, that's my family."
RACHEL: It was -- she said “you have opened my eyes.” It was very meaningful for her. And, um, and, and a situation like this where you think about, you know, a contemporary company, that, that tried to profit off of your ancestor's enslavement.
At the same time, you know, so many of us African Americans know so little about our history, because you know, our, our names don't appear in newspapers and in records, and in ... slaves were barred by law from being able to read and write, and so there are no letters and journals. This is precious information for people. And so as painful as it was, she was so grateful.
JACK: I mean, did she, did she know of this ancestor?
RACHEL: She knew this name. And it was kinda funny because she's the church historian, who had done all this research on the history of the church, and on other families in the church, but had not done her own history. And had not known that her own ancestors were among the founders of the church, or that they had been insured by New York Life.
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-
RACHEL:... these companies were doing this.
RACHEL: Of course, they were doing it.
JACK: Of course. Right.
RACHEL: And, and, um, and it was, it, it was and is painful, difficult, ugly history, but it's who we are.
CHENJERAI: And when the information about these policies first came to light… some African Americans weren’t content to just chalk it up as ugly history… they wanted to do something about it… so they went to the courts…
RACHEL: So there were claims made. Lawsuits filed in the, 2000s against insurance companies and, and banks that had documented ties to this history. And, these lawsuits failed.
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: Americans are definitely trying to struggle to come to some way to talk about his history. And I'm wondering if in your work with the New York Life, and maybe even what you've heard from the New York Life people how do we think about this Civil War history?
RACHEL: There's some brief discussion of this history on their website. They publicly donated some of these ledger books to the New York Public Library um, so that researchers could continue to delve into this matter.
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).
RACHEL: Were discriminated against in, in terms of, of wages and earning possibilities, in terms of home ownership. I mean, it is our reality.
RACHEL: What’s important to me is … 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.
This was not just a story of one man selling another.
This was, slavery was, an engine that powered the economy that benefited a number of institutions that are still around today: universities, corporations. You know...and I was never taught that. Most of us did not know that as kids growing up. I make sure my kids know. But I think there are a whole lot of people who don't know. I think there are a whole lot of people who don't know, and then there are some who don't want to know.
JACK: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We also had help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney.
CHENJERAI: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.
Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JACK: Fact checking by Michelle Harris… Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Rachel Swarns. You can find more of her reporting on Georgetown and New York Life in the New York Times, or you can check out her book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama.
CHENJERAI : And for further reading on slave insurance we recommend Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America by Sharon Ann Murphy.
CHENJERAI: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. And don’t forget to join our facebook group: Uncivil Podcast.
Our friends at the Heavyweight podcast are looking for stories for their third season. On the show, host Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of a moment in people’s lives when something went wrong, and then goes on a quest to help them make things right. So if you have a moment from your own past that you wish you could change—an interaction you can’t stop obsessing over, a confrontation you’ve been avoiding, or a question you don’t know how to ask—send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
JACK: I’m Jack Hitt.
CHENJERAI: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JACK: We’ll see you next week.