Slave insurers revealed in report

By Deborah Kong, The Associated Press
Saturday May 04, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Evidence of insurance polices for the lives of slaves surfaced in records that six companies submitted to the California Department of Insurance. 

The department issued a report Wednesday on slave insurers and also released a separate database with the names of about 675 slaves and more than 300 slaveholders. Activists were excited about the new documents, which they say could bolster the case for reparations for descendants. 

The insurance department said in its report that Aetna, AIG, New York Life and Royal & Sun Alliance provided records indicating they or their predecessors may have issued policies insuring the lives of slaves. 

ACE USA submitted an Aetna Life policy on a slave, which it said was written after Aetna Life and ACE’s corporate predecessor parted ways. Penn Mutual also submitted a policy, but it had no corporate name attached to it. 

AIG submitted a magazine article that contained a “replica of a policy issued to a slaveholder in the amount of $550.00 on the life of one male slave known as ’Charles,”’ according to the report. 

ACE reported that it found a copy of a slave policy written in 1855 by Aetna Life and issued in Mississippi, insuring the life of a slave laborer named Peter. 

The report “adds to the databases of organizations that are working on lawsuits, and it adds to the information about African-American history,” said Jean Damu, chairman of a California group that is trying to build support for black reparations. 

The insurance department also found evidence the practice of insuring workers was not limited to Africans. Manhattan Life provided one policy that insured shippers for their cargo of 700 Chinese laborers on a journey from China in 1854, the report said. 

The workers were valued at $120 each. After three of the “coolies” jumped overboard and 11 others died of disease, Manhattan Life paid $408, according to a 1961 speech made by the company’s president, the report said. 

California appears to be the first state to require insurance companies to submit data on slave policies they issued, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. 

About 1,350 life, property and casualty insurance companies doing business in California were required to report to the insurance department under a law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2001. About 92 percent of the companies have responded, said Leslie Tick, the agency’s senior staff counsel. 

The companies had to report whether they or their predecessors issued insurance policies to slaveholders before 1865, providing coverage for damage to or death of slaves. 

Although the companies were licensed to do business in California, the policies they or their predecessors wrote were issued elsewhere, Tick said. 

“Slavery was a significant component of the overall economic system for two centuries,” said Richard America, who is part of a group that plans file a lawsuit against the federal government seeking reparations. It wasn’t just plantation owners who were connected to the slave trade, he said. 

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he plans to urge other states to initiate similar legislation requiring companies to report on slave policies. “Much more research must be done to understand the full breadth of the insurance industry’s involvement,” he said 

In early April, three slave descendants filed suit against Aetna insurance company, FleetBoston Financial Corp. and railroad giant CSX on behalf of themselves and millions of other blacks, claiming the companies — or their corporate predecessors — unjustly profited from slavery. 

Aetna spokesman David Carter said the company regrets the existence of the policies. “We believe it’s important to move from this point and focus on where our company is today and where we can be tomorrow,” Carter said. 

New York Life spokesman William Werfelman said the company “abhors the practice of slavery historically and currently, and we profoundly regret that our predecessor company, Nautilus, was associated in any way with it for even a brief period of time.