Remembrance: Forcing the disclosure of links to slavery

The Massachusetts state legislature is considering a bill that would force companies to disclose historic links to slavery.

To quote from the article:

A bill before the Legislature would require some of Massachusetts oldest banking, financial and insurance companies to look deep into their history — and the histories of subsidiaries and predecessor companies — to uncover links to the slave trade, as a condition of doing business with the state.

It also would authorize the secretary of state to produce a book documenting to what extent the state, since the times of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, benefited from slavery, whether through taxes or economic growth.

I have a pretty conflicted response to this, because on the one hand, hell yeah. Northern states have taken a pass for well over a century now on their own links to slavery and the ways they supported it and benefited from it. As Douglas Harper of Slavery In the North points out,

African slavery is so much the outstanding feature of the South, in the unthinking view of it, that people often forget there had been slaves in all the old colonies. Slaves were auctioned openly in the Market House of Philadelphia; in the shadow of Congregational churches in Rhode Island; in Boston taverns and warehouses; and weekly, sometimes daily, in Merchant’s Coffee House of New York. . . .

African bondage in the colonies north of the Mason-Dixon Line has left a legacy in the economics of modern America and in the racial attitudes of the U.S. working class. Yet comparatively little is written about the 200-year history of Northern slavery.

In What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Chandra Manning addresses the “anti-emancipation leanings” of the legislatures of Illinois and Indiana, and reports that Richland, Wisconsin “convened an anti-emancipation meeting.” Illinois at least passed a law in 2003 requiring insurance companies doing business with the state to disclose links to slavery. California passed the first law of this kind, and Iowa has begun to require this disclosure. Still, there’s a lot of loyal Union states that haven’t even begun to explore their own complicity in the greatest sin of the nation.

So hell yeah, let’s see a northern state take an honest look at how it benefited from the slave trade, finally, and fess up to it. Living in the South, even as a transplanted Yankee, the impulse of those north of the Mason and Dixon to pin the roots of modern racism solely on the South gets tiring. As the Drive-By Truckers put it, “Racism is a world-wide problem, and it has been since the beginning of recorded history. And it ain’t just white and black, but thanks to George Wallace it’s always a little more convenient to play it with a southern accent.” Their timing is off, I think, the northern states were trying to pin the sins of slavery solely on the southern ones back during the Late Unpleasantness, but the sentiment still stands.

On the other hand, though, with the requirement that companies research all their predecessor companies and subsidiaries, it may place an unfair burden on businesses that wish to do business with the state. And what’s going to get done with the information? Will it be publicized, or will it be buried? Will the secretary of state of Massachusetts actually produce the book documenting how the state benefited from the slave trade? The proposed law authorizes it, but does not mandate it.

Naturally, those opposed to the bill in Massachusetts are framing it as an economic concern, which is fair enough I guess. But I have to say that I do, in the end, find the argument of the bill’s sponsor, Democrat Byron Rushing, more compelling.

“Part of the problem is that people are ignorant of what slavery actually was,” he said. “Most people’s views of slavery are attached to abolition — not the ongoing horror of slavery, but the end of slavery.”
. . .
“It’s very important that we tell the truth about our history,” said Rushing, one of only a handful of black lawmakers on Beacon Hill. “Slavery gave this country a major economic advantage and we should talk about it.”