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Aetna Acknowledges Issuing Slave Policies During 1850s, Offers Apology, Denies Reparations

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Aetna, Inc., the nation’s largest health insurer, apologized Thursday for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died. [includes rush transcript]

“Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853 that the company may have insured the lives of slaves,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge. “We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice.”

Aetna’s public apology was prompted by an inquiry from activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who earlier this year contacted the Hartford-based company to seek an apology and reparations.

Aetna, which noted that the slave policies were legal before slavery was abolished, said it plans to make no reparations. “We have concluded that no further actions are required at this time,” Laberge said. Aetna said its records show the company wrote no more than a dozen such policies to slave owners. The company said it previously acknowledged having written slave policies in a report prepared in 1956.

Meanwhile, a battle is raging in Rhode Island to change its official name, which is “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” A bill has been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. At one point, eight percent of Rhode Islanders were held in bondage.


  • Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, New York activist who just finished Law School. E-mail: Deadria Farmer-Paellmann
  • Fred Leberge, Aetna Spokesperson. On tape.
  • Katrina Brown, direct descendent of the DeWolfes, the biggest slaveholding family in the Northeast, doing film documentary “Traces of the Trade.” E-mail: Katrina Brown
  • Joanne Pope Melish, Associate Professor of History, University of Kentucky. Author of ??Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England.
  • Randall Robinson, founder and executive director of TransAfrica. Author of ??The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
  • Sam Anderson, author ??Black Holocaust for Beginners.
  • Dr. Virgil Wood, of Pond Street Baptist Church, and President of the Ministers’ Alliance of Rhode Island, the organization calling for a change of Rhode Island’s name. He also worked with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. E-mail: Dr. Virgil Wood

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Aetna, the nation’s largest health insurer, did apologize last week for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died, but said that they would go no further.

The public apology was prompted by an inquiry from an activist who has just graduated from law school, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who earlier this year contacted the Hartford-based giant to seek an apology and reparations.

Aetna, which noted the slave policies were legal before slavery was abolished, said it plans to make no such reparations, and we’ll hear from Aetna in a few minutes.

But before we go to the corporate giant, we are joined now by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who has started the ball rolling on this issue. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us how you found out about Aetna’s role in slavery.

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: While in law school, I was doing research, actually under the direction of Professor Robert Ward, who’s now Dean Robert Ward of Southern New England School of Law, and I wanted to trace my genealogy. So I picked up the book Black Genealogy by Charles L. Blockson, and in that book, it mentions that Aetna wrote policies for the lives of slaves on behalf of the owners of the slaves.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: And then, what I did was — I mean, this is information I had gathered a while back — and for Black History Month this year, I had made a decision that I would start this campaign. And so, I contacted Aetna, and I made the request, by telephone, actually, for restitution and for them to make an apology.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: Initially, they wanted to find out who I was, and who I worked with, and at the time, I wasn’t working with any organization. In fact, I still am not working with any organization. Initially, they said that they would look into it, and the following week, they called back, because they actually initiated a lot of phone calls. They called back the following week and told me who the point person would be within the organization.

The following week, they called back. And this is like the third week of — the fourth week, the last week of February. I got a call from a representative there who said that they were putting together an agenda and that they would make an apology, and they would pay restitution, but they cannot say exactly the form of the restitution, and they wouldn’t say exactly the date. But, actually, today is the date that they told me that they would have all of that information together for me.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of restitution did they say they would make, and who told you in the company that they would make some?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: Well, initially, they — Gwen Houston, she’s the head of diversity for all of Aetna, she’s an African American woman, and she was very excited. Actually, the people at Aetna seemed very eager to do this. I don’t know exactly what happened, but she basically laid out exactly what they would do, and this was last week. She gave me a call, and she said that they would make an acknowledgement apology, not an apology per se. And they would enhance scholarships to university and college students, and that would be the form of restitution that they were going to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: But it seems to have changed.

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: Sure. Two days later, the story changed.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: They only issued the apology and said that they would not at this particular time — they actually don’t have any plans at this particular time to pay restitution.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, yesterday, I got a chance to speak with a spokesperson for Aetna. They were in the midst of the company dividing to try to squelch a takeover, and they said they had very little time and would not be able to come on the show. But I asked him about the issues that you’ve raised.

FRED LEBERGE: My name is Fred LeBerge, and I’m the spokesman for Aetna in Hartford.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the issue of the life insurance policies that Aetna gave to slaveholders in the 1850s?

FRED LEBERGE: Well, we’ve long acknowledged that for several years shortly after the company’s founding in 1853, Aetna may have insured the lives of slaves. But there’s limited and incomplete information on our archives on the extent of that participation, and, nonetheless, we express our — we have expressed and express again our deep regret over any participation at all.

On the other hand, we’re very proud of our commitment to a diverse workplace in society today, and we believe that any policy decisions made in the distant past are more than outweighed by our record of diversity and our support of fairness and equality for all people.

Beyond that, we’ve concluded that, beyond our apology, no further actions are required, especially considering our strong, consistent commitment to diversity over many years, and the numerous philanthropic and workplace diversity initiatives that we undertake, and for which we’ve been publicly recognized.

AMY GOODMAN: Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who sort of first brought this out, said that Aetna officials were talking about increasing its sponsorship of university scholarships for African Americans as a means of restitution. Did you pull back on that?

FRED LEBERGE: Well, that’s a statement that she made. We had — please understand that Ms. Paellmann did not unearth a deep dark secret about Aetna here. We provided her with the information that was in our archives, and, in fact, it was also discussed in a company history that was published in 1956.

So the other thing that’s important to remember is that we — as I said, there is limited, incomplete information on our archives on the extent of our participation. We only have evidence of four such policies, and there’s also evidence that this was not unique to Aetna. Nonetheless, we’re not defending our involvement in any way, but we have concluded that beyond the apology, no further actions will be taken at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of profits that helped to make Aetna the multi-million dollar, or multi-billion dollar, corporation that it is today, what about the idea that you have a moral obligation to apologize and share the wealth with the heirs of Africans?

FRED LEBERGE: We did apologize, as I stated, and, in terms of the gains on this, as I said, we only have four such policies in our archives. The premiums on those policies don’t even total a hundred dollars, I don’t believe, so it’s not as though we wrote hundreds or thousands of these policies. We understand the sensitivity of the issues. On the other hand, we feel that, beyond the apology, there is no further action that we’ll take at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: But didn’t you say that you don’t have complete archives at this point, that you don’t know the extent to which you insured slaveholders?

FRED LEBERGE: Yeah, as I said before, you know, we were willing to read our statement when I was talking with Maria about this, and you’re, you know, sort of engaging me beyond what we’d like to say publicly, so —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last question, and that is the issue of, you know, we’re seeing the whole issue of reparations being discussed from the Holocaust and the Swiss banks and the German corporations having to pay up for the money that they made off of the suffering of Jews and others. Do you see parallels here on the issue of slavery and Aetna insuring the slaveholders?

FRED LEBERGE: Insuring slaveholders — well, let me put it this way: there’s no evidence that we even ever collected the premiums on this or that any of these policies were paid on. So, because the information is so sketchy and inconclusive, this is — there’s no real parallel to the other situations that you’ve mentioned, in our view. Nonetheless, you know, as I said, we don’t defend an involvement in this, and express our deep regret over any participation at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Will the company be doing more research into just the extent to which Aetna was involved with insuring and profiting off of slavery in the United States?

FRED LEBERGE: We’ve done some research. We’ve contacted the College of Insurance, we’ve contacted officials in Virginia and Chicago, and it’s very hard to find very much information on this. It may be that some — there may be academic exercises, it may be that’s one avenue. But the research that we’ve done over several weeks really showed —- didn’t lead conclusively to a great extent of participation, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: Would Aetna open its archives to scholars, to African American leaders to look at?

FRED LEBERGE: You’re — again, you said you wanted to ask me one more question, and you just try to engage me, when I thought what we agreed to was that I would give you our statement. I’ve gone beyond that, and I really don’t care to go any further. OK, please?

AMY GOODMAN: All right, well, thanks very much.

FRED LEBERGE: Thank you. I mean, we’re trying to be helpful, but at the same time, you can see where I’m coming from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. But, I mean, it’s such an important issue. Just the issue of opening the archives, so that people could do further investigation.

FRED LEBERGE: This is a public company —- it’s not a public office; it’s our company, and Aetna -—

AMY GOODMAN: Fred LeBerge, speaking to us from Aetna, the company’s number one insurer. We had a bit longer conversation where he said he didn’t want to go on the record any longer. I spoke to him yesterday afternoon. He said he didn’t have time for the show today.

But I wanted to ask you, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, about his response, in saying there were only a few premiums; it was not even clear whether or not those premiums were actually paid out.

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: Well, I don’t know how true that is. What they did send me, after I made the request, was copies of two policies that indicate that Aetna was involved in selling slave policies for at least four years. I have one that’s dated February of 1854 and another one that’s dated November of 1858. So that seems to suggest that for almost a period of four years, they were engaged in these policies. They’re from two different cities: New Orleans and St. Louis. So it looks like the business was far more extensive than what they’re suggesting. No company can survive on only four policies over that period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mr. LeBerge said that the company is a private one, that they don’t have to open their records. And it was that point that he got most annoyed in the interview, when I persisted on the question of opening the archives.

When we come back, we’re going to ask for a response from Randall Robinson, who is head of TransAfrica in Washington, D.C. and author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. We’ll also be joined by a direct descendant of the largest slave-owning family in the Northeast, the DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island. And we’re going to find out about a controversy that has been brewing this year, around the changing of the official name of Rhode Island because of the issue of slavery. We’ll be joined by the reverend from Providence, Rhode Island, who wants his state’s name changed.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just been listening to the account of Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, New York activist, just finished law school, part of her studies were looking at who was involved with slavery, challenged Aetna, the United States’s number one insurer, from them got premiums that they had taken out on slaves for — or that slave owners had taken out from Aetna on slaves, so that if they died, or perhaps were killed, the slave owner would benefit, would be reimbursed.

Randall Robinson is with us, as well, founder and executive director of TransAfrica. His new book is called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. As you were listening to Mr. LeBerge of Aetna, I was wondering what your response was to him, particularly when he said, “This not a public company; this is a private company.”

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, let me first, Amy, commend Ms. Farmer-Paellmann for this very productive work that she has done. I think it is a significant contribution to this push for reparations for slavery, and would encourage her to continue this.

One can’t be reassured by what Aetna’s spokesperson said. One, you can’t realistically expect a company to investigate itself, and when I was listening to what he was saying, I was thinking of the rather dramatic contrast here in what happened in the case of the sixteen German corporations that were discovered to have used Jews during the Nazi period as slaves, and the extent to which the U.S. government involved itself in pressing those corporations to make a clean breast of it and to settle with the payment of restitution to the victims and to their heirs.

In that case, Stuart Eisenstadt was asked by President Clinton to lead the U.S. government effort to press these German corporations to be revealing, as well as to come forward in a settlement offer. It enjoyed the support of both houses of Congress, and, of course, as I’ve said, the President of the United States, and a settlement was reached for upwards of $5 billion from Volkswagen and other corporations who were found to have been culpable in this area.

It is unrealistic to expect that Aetna, or any other corporation, will investigate itself, make a statement that tells us clearly what its involvement was, without pressure from the outside. And when asked this question, Eisenstadt, about the contrast here between our country’s efforts on the German corporations and our country’s efforts with respect to what Ms. Farmer-Paellmann has worked on, and the general question of reparations, Mr. Eisenstadt was not at all forthcoming, nor has been the administration. And it is beyond anyone logically to see the difference in the two cases. I think this is something we have to press ahead on and to give every measure of support to the work that Ms. Farmer-Paellmann has done, which I think is critically important to this overall effort.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, are you looking at other corporations, or can you tell us which ones you are?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: Yeah, there are other corporations. There’s one that I can talk about right now a little bit. I also made a request to FleetBoston Financial Corporation, because — for reparations and an apology, because, during my research, I discovered that their founder, John Brown, had been heavily engaged in the illegal, as well as the legal, slave trade during the founding of their bank.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to be confused with the John Brown of [inaudible] Ferry?

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: No, no. This is a different John Brown. This is John Brown of Rhode Island.

AMY GOODMAN: Harper’s Ferry.

DEADRIA FARMER-PAELLMANN: The precursor to Fleet Bank was the Providence Bank of Rhode Island, and John Brown, along with some of his colleagues or fellow merchants established this particular bank. And John Brown had engaged in several slave trading expeditions after the founding of the bank and in violation of federal law. And there was a law of 19 — I’m sorry, a law of 1795 — that prohibited the international slave trade. And he brought over upwards of 572 slaves during that period.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I tried, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, to get FleetBoston on the program today; they wouldn’t come on. I talked to the Director of Corporate Affairs, James Mahoney, and he said that the information that you’d given to him so far doesn’t indicate there’s any connection in 1791 and slave trading to the bank currently as constituted, that it’s extremely remote.

He said, “We have no records or documents and no information about what took place in 1791,” though he does say, of course, that the charter was taken out by John Brown in 1791 as Providence Bank, and which then, through various reincarnations, became the current FleetBoston Bank. And he said he didn’t want to join the program, because just being a part of it would suggest that there is a connection.

We are joined on the phone right now by Joanne Pope Melish, who is Associate Professor of History at University of Kentucky. She had been at Brown University — Brown, by the way, is named for John Brown and the Brown brothers, who also not only founded what is now FleetBoston, but Brown University — and she’s written the book Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England.

You talk more extensively about slavery as an institution in New England, but before we get to that, Professor Melish, this issue of the Browns: what was their extent of involvement with slavery? We know it was a divided family, with some of the brothers eventually being abolitionists.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: Yes, that’s right. John Brown is — now, my specialty is not really the slave trade, but rather the domestic institution of slavery in New England, which, I think, merits a lot of discussion, as well. But John Brown was, indeed, invested in a number of slave trading voyages, but what I think is more interesting, or more troubling, is Brown is an example of someone whose wealth was created by his investment in a whole range of ancillary businesses that supported the slave trade, which also is why this question of complicity of various institutions in slavery and the slave trade, it seems to me, is much more extensive than simply pinpointing individuals or individual corporations.

John Brown owned Hope Furnace, which created, with an iron working business, created the anchors that were used in the slave boats. He owned several distilling businesses and was invested in a number of others that distilled rum. It was used to trade for slaves on the coast of Africa. His involvement in any number of enterprises that under-girded the slave trade, it seems to me, makes a more compelling case for his responsibility, in some sense. But that then leads to how extensive the responsibility of so many of New Englanders — those are the people I’m most concerned with, but Americans in general — was in the slave trade and slavery.

There’s some new evidence that, in fact, investment in the slave trade, at least in Rhode Island, was not simply the wealthy. For a long time, the argument was, well, it was the wealthy, and so you can pin it on John Brown, or you can pin it — and I think, certainly, the Browns and other — the DeWolfs, as Katrina Brown will talk about — are heavily responsible for the slave trade, but it turns out that recent evidence suggests that ordinary Americans, ordinary Rhode Islanders, what we would call middling sort — sort of, today we would call middle class New Englanders — invested a couple of shares a piece, invested in the slave trade the way they would invest in other businesses.

I found this to be kind of shocking, to realize that the way your father might invest in a couple of shares of American [inaudible] or something like that today, people got together a little bit of money, particularly on the eve of the closing of the slave trade, when it seemed to be the last minute to possibly get some money, extract some money, out of black bodies, on the eve of the closing of the trade, ordinary people would invest a couple of shares apiece. Major slave traders wanted to spread their risk, because if you were —- if you entirely underwrote an entire voyage, and the voyage went down, you lost a lot of money. So major slave traders -—

AMY GOODMAN: Unless you were insured by Aetna, and then you get the payout.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: Well, there’s that. Yes, that’s true. But, so major slave traders would try to, say, invest in half the voyage and then — half the expense, and then the other half spread among individual investors. And ordinary people seemed to have not only no moral qualms about it in general, but, on the eve of the closing of the trade, when the outcry against slavery and the slave trade had dramatically increased, saw an opportunity to make a quick buck and increased their investment in it.

AMY GOODMAN: It may shock many to know that in New England, there were many slaves and that the major slave-holding families, the core of them, were in Rhode Island. What were the number of slaves at the high point of slavery, if you can put those two words together — “high point” and “slavery” — in Rhode Island, Professor Melish?

JOANNE POPE MELISH: Well, in the 1760s, which is roughly the peak of the domestic institution — we’re talking here, actual working slaves in the state, as opposed to the trade — close to 8% of the population of the state was black and enslaved.

AMY GOODMAN: So, one in eight Rhode Islanders were enslaved.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: 8%, which is, what, eight out of a hundred. Is that one in eight? My math skills are not …

AMY GOODMAN: Eight in a hundred.

JOANNE POPE MELISH: OK, but, you know, 8%, OK? On the eve of the Revolution, there in New England, per se, there were about 15,000 to 16,000 slaves in the New England states. There were about 41,000 in the North, that is to say including the mid-Atlantic states. So 8% may strike people as not very many, but slaves in New England are also what has been called a “clustered minority.” That is to say, they are not spread evenly, like dots across the landscape, but they’re clustered in areas where they’re either doing heavy agricultural labor, as in the southern part of Rhode Island, or in cities, like Boston and Providence, where they are loading the boats, unloading the boats, bringing the materials to the boats and away from the boats, and then they’re also doing household labor, but household at a time when household labor — when the household is a productive unit, and therefore household labor means something quite different than it would today. So there’s an extensive use of slaves in New England.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring now Katrina Brown into the conversation, who is a direct descendant of the largest slave-holding family in the Northeast, the DeWolfs. And as she discovered this, she decided to do a film documentary about her family, called Traces of the Trade, which she’s in the midst of. She speaks to us now from Berkeley, but is moving to Boston to do — continue the work on the film.

Katrina Brown, welcome to Democracy Now!

KATRINA BROWN: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. Can you tell us about your family, the DeWolfs?

KATRINA BROWN: Yeah, I’d love to. I should begin by clarifying that they were slave traders, not slave owners, in terms of the scope. They were slave owners, but they were the largest slave-trading family in terms of the scope of their dealings. And what that primarily involved was operating pretty much their own triangle trade. So, being based in Bristol, Rhode Island, and having run distilleries there that produced rum, taking the rum to West Africa to trade for Africans, bringing the enslaved Africans mostly either to Cuba or to the southern United States. And in Cuba, they did own plantations, so that’s where they did most of their slave holding. They had sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba, and then sugar would be brought from Cuba to Rhode Island to manufacture the rum.

They were most heavily invested in the slave trade by virtue of the fact that this took place over three generations, so from 1769 until at least the 1820s, for the majority of that period, the trade was illegal, so they were doing it illegally for most of that period. And they did have some slave holding in Rhode Island, where, as Joanne Melish was explaining, there was the domestic institution of slavery, but really their primary involvement was in operating the trade, owning the ships, being the ships’ captains and reaping enormous wealth and profits from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was James DeWolf?

KATRINA BROWN: He was a son of Mark Antony DeWolf, who was the first to begin in the trade, and he became — he and then his nephew, another, a grandson of Mark Antony DeWolf, were the most, quote/unquote, “successful” in the trade. James DeWolf became a U.S. Senator. Both of them were in the — if I remember correctly, I think both George and James DeWolf were in the Rhode Island legislature. And James DeWolf was also a representative of another important phase in all of this that is worth mentioning, which is the investment in the textile industry and cotton in the North.

He — once the trade — the trade became illegal in Rhode Island and nationally from the 1790s, but wasn’t enforced and most strongly enacted until 1808. So, once, in 1808, it became arguably more dangerous for the Rhode Island slavers to continue in the business, he, unlike his nephew George, who continued despite how risky it was, he decided to take his money and invest it in purchasing a cotton mill, and that was when the textile industry was taking off.

And as one might — well, as isn’t talked about very much, but as is obvious when one thinks about it, it was cotton from the South that was the basis for the textile mills in the North, and so it becomes one of the major ways in which New England was invested in the slave economy at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was Thomas Jefferson’s role in all this, in relationship to your family, the DeWolfs?

KATRINA BROWN: Yeah, well, like I mentioned, the trade became illegal in Rhode Island, and Congress did pass a law in 1794. The DeWolfs continued to trade, but what took place was that the federal government did, somewhat selectively, prosecute traders.

Basically, this was dependent on either a prosecutor who was interested and morally committed to doing that and to, quote-unquote, you know, “bureaucrats” who were willing to assist in that process. And the most significant bureaucratic role at that time, with relation to this, was collector of ports, and the collector of ports for the district that Bristol was under was someone who did want to prosecute traders. And so, the DeWolfs did whatever they could to get that changed, and in the process they ended up — it went all the way to President Thomas Jefferson, who the DeWolfs had supported. It’s a classic case of political favors based on campaign contributions, which we, you know — certainly is still a live issue today. It does take place then, in terms of Thomas Jefferson having been supported financially by the DeWolfs, and thus when they asked first for a separate district to be created, and then for that district to be managed by a collector who was a DeWolf supporter and brother-in-law, that favor does get granted through the Secretary of the Treasury.

AMY GOODMAN: So the person who would have stopped the trading was removed, and Thomas Jefferson put in a relative of the DeWolfs.

KATRINA BROWN: Yeah, and they were therefore, from 1804 to 1807, able to continue, you know, just completely unchallenged, and that was the height of the trade before it became — before 1808.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for stations to identify themselves. Katrina Brown, direct descendant of the DeWolfs, the largest slave-trading family in the Northeast, doing a documentary on her family, Traces in the Trade.

When we come back, a last comment from Randall Robinson, who has to leave, and then we’re going to find out about why Rhode Island, some Rhode Islanders, want to change its name, based on the controversy around slavery, and a name you might know that it’s officially — might not know it’s officially called. We’ll be joined by a reverend from Providence, who is fighting in the legislature to have Rhode Island’s name changed. And we’ll be joined by Sam Anderson, who is author of the book, Black Holocaust for Beginners, to talk about other corporations invested in slavery.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, as we have this roundtable discussion about slavery and restitution, begun around the issue of Aetna apologizing for its role in slavery, as an activist and now lawyer, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, pushed it around its premiums, insuring slave owners. They now have issued an apology, which the mainstream press has called historic, but are very quick to say, “No deal. There will no reparations or restitution.” And we’re listening to the story of Katrina Brown’s family, the DeWolfs, the largest slave-trading family in the Northeast.

Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, as you hear Katrina’s story about the DeWolfs, as you hear about John Brown, the founder of what is now FleetBoston, what are your conclusions about where we go from here?

KATRINA BROWN: Was that to me?

AMY GOODMAN: I was asking Randall Robinson, if he’s still there. I guess he dropped off. But, well, let me ask you that, Katrina Brown, as you investigate your family.

KATRINA BROWN: Well, I do, right away, have just a sense of — the idea that there’s a debt, as Randall Robinson has so well articulated in his book, is just abundantly clear and obvious to me, especially the more I’ve looked into this and researched it. And, you know, the word reparations means to repair, and certainly the economic gap and the material need for repair and reparations, in terms of the fact that the economic gap in the country currently between blacks and whites, just to speak of those two groups, is certainly still massive. And then, beyond that, to repair the relationship, in terms of the sense of — you know, to the lack of racism and a complete sense of dignity and equality between the races, all of that seems like it needs to be addressed in every possible way.

And one thing that has struck me, in terms of thinking about the Aetna case is just the idea that, you know, one can ever do too much, so whether it turns out that Aetna only had four policies or whether they had hundreds or whether they had thousands, I think, for them and for any other company or family involved, I’ve found myself sort of reversing the question and saying, “What would be the harm in doing too much? There would be no harm.” And I certainly have been, through the process of doing this documentary, hoping to engage fellow white Americans in the question of what is the responsibility, and just becoming more and more aware of the layers of defensiveness and the layers of denial that became ingrained from the very beginning.

And Joanne Melish has studied quite extensively and documented the extent to which New England and the North have an amnesia, and so my particular interest is in that region and peeling away some of those layers in order to be able to get the conversation going that could lead to reparations in whatever form makes sense, but to at least begin that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, right now in Rhode Island, there is a major controversy going on, and that is over the state’s name, which is officially the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” And we’re joined by Dr. Virgil Wood, who is head of the Pond Street Baptist Church and president of the Ministers Alliance of Rhode Island, an organization that’s calling for a change in Rhode Island’s name, and a bill has been introduced into the state legislature that would change Rhode Island’s name.

Can you talk about where this name comes from and why you want it changed, Dr. Wood?

DR. VIRGIL WOOD: Yes, delighted. First of all, may I thank Ms. Farmer-Paellmann for her pioneering, you know, work here? It’s just extraordinary. And this whole team is just so extraordinary.

Yes, the history of the name, before I do that, may I say one other thing?


DR. VIRGIL WOOD: This past weekend, the Pope, the Holy Father, has declared a jubilee and asked forgiveness, but I want to note that it is not a real jubilee yet, because — it’s a not-yet jubilee he’s engaged in, because he has not for one second acknowledged that it was the Roman Catholic Church in 1442 that authorized Spain and Portugal to go into Africa and start the slave trade. It is the Roman Catholic Church that has to be added to all these others. I wanted to say that first.

Secondly, the presence of the plantation name in Rhode Island. I was here in the '50s for three years as pastor of the same church, came back thirty-five years later, but then and now, the citizens, especially the black citizens and the people of good will, always felt that that was a dark secret, that name, “Plantation.” And I tell you what underscores why this is important now to do this. DuBois's research indicates, and he said, and I’m going to quote Benjamin Brawley’s the early beginnings of negro history in America. He says, “In course of time, Rhode Island became the greatest slave trader in the country, becoming a sort of clearing house for the other colonies.” That’s a direct quote from W.E.B. DuBois in his book of 1896, Suppression of the African Slave Trade.

So, you see, there’s historic basis for requiring, at this point, that a civilized society would not so grossly insult any of its citizens. It would be like Germany today embracing the swastika, and my Jewish friends might not agree with that, but that’s OK. The odiousness is the same.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what are you proposing? And when does anyone see this name, the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”?

DR. VIRGIL WOOD: You see it on all official documents. You see it any time you see the letterhead. It’s there, and everybody knows it’s there. It’s the ugly secret no one wants to talk about. We even have black folks — we call them “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Jemimas” — who have sided against their own community. But those of us who felt the oppression of American apartheid, particularly in the South, know that “Plantation” shares with Confederate flag and with swastikas, all the odiousness that civilized society must stand against.

AMY GOODMAN: I was looking at an article in the New York Times about the controversy over the change of name, and the Republican governor said, well, at this point he’s not for the change, but if people start changing their views, he might change his, as a true politician.

DR. VIRGIL WOOD: Right, and I think that sounds like an open mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pope Melish, this name, the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” where did Providence Plantations come from?

JOANNE POPE MELISH: Well, I think it’s a complicated thing, and I actually agree with Reverend Wood, that I think it should be changed because the meaning it now holds, as a word, is offensive. Initially, the so-called plantations in the New World were not necessarily — there was no necessary association with slavery when the word “plantations” was first used. Plimouth plantation, as the Pilgrims come — and it’s Plimouth plantation with an “i,” usually — and there are no — slavery is not necessarily associated with it. Now, in Rhode Island, when the charter — when we get the official name “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” in the charter in 1663, there is not yet extensive slavery in the West Bay settlements that are the plantations.

AMY GOODMAN: Though there’s some?

JOANNE POPE MELISH: A century — now, so, initially, slavery is not connected with, of necessity, with these plantations. A century later, there is — many of these plantations are absolutely dependent upon slave labor. A century after that, or nearly a century after that, the situation in the South, with massive plantation labor, the association between the word “plantation” and slavery has become a fixed one.

Now, I would argue that even though initially the use of the word “plantation” doesn’t have an association with slavery, both because in Rhode Island it does become a fact that these plantations are dependent on slave labor and because the word generally acquires a meaning — you cannot use the word “plantation” today without thinking about, you know, Gone With the Wind and black backs bent over cotton and so forth — that that meaning is very real and very hurtful to people of color, and it seems — who are, many of whom, not all of whom, many of whom are the descendents of slaves. And therefore, it seems to me, just like when Reverend Wood brought up the swastika, I think that’s very apt. It originally is a harmless Greek decorative motif that appears on all kinds of things. It has become associated with Germany. No one can today can put the swastika on as a decorative motif on, you know, handbags or something and simply say, “Oh, well, it’s just a decorative motif.” It has acquired a meaning that is powerful and real and painful. And I think that word “plantation” in Rhode Island — let’s get rid of it. Let’s get rid of it, because it has acquired a meaning that resonates with what, in fact, happened here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Professor Joanne Pope Melish and Dr. Virgil Wood, we’re also joined by Sam Anderson, author of Black Holocaust for Beginners and Education Director at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

Your book, Holocaust for BeginnersThe Black Holocaust for Beginners — really does go into the corporate involvement in slavery, and I was wondering if you could just give us a brief outline or list of other corporations that we should know about.

SAM ANDERSON: Well, first off, Amy, let me just clarify the thing about the swastika. The origin of the swastika is not from Greece, but from Africa, and the connection between the Egyptians and the Greeks incorporated the swastika into the Greek culture.

My book concentrates primarily on the relationship between the development of capitalism and its subsequent corporations and the development of slavery and the particular experience of the Middle Passage. And in that, what I point out is that we cannot look at the development of any industrial base in the West in the United States without looking at the development of slavery. And that is to say that the creation of the steam engine was a creation by Mr. Watts that was funded by people investing in the slave trade.

We find that Lloyds of London, which was one of the first insurance companies in the world, was founded on the basis of insuring a slave trade from England, and subsequently the model followed by Aetna Life Insurance Company, Nautilus, which became New York Life Insurance Company, and all the others. And the same thing with Barclays Bank. The banking industry has its foundation on the slave trade, and subsequently Barclays and the eventual U.S. banking system, which came out of the British banking system, once the United States became independent of England, was founded on the slave trade.

So there is much more work to be done in looking at the specifics of the evolution of U.S. corporations out of slavery. For example, we have to look at the development of the steel industry in the United States coming out of the ironwork industry, which was primarily done in the eighteenth — seventeenth and eighteenth century by African labor in the North and in the South: Birmingham, Alabama; the Carolinas; Buffalo, New York; and a number of other places where we have this development of the iron industry and eventually the steel industry out of Pittsburgh.

The connection between, for example, Colgate-Palmolive Corporation and African — enslaved Africans working in the most horrendous conditions in creating soap. And Palmolive soap has its origin out of slave labor, because that was the worst — one of the worst jobs was to make soap. Soap comes from fats of pigs and so forth, and it’s very horrible working conditions, and they were able to develop a profitable business out of enslaving Africans and working in creating this soap. And then they marketed it and eventually became a big soap-producing corporation, not only in the United States, but throughout the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Madison Avenue?

SAM ANDERSON: Madison Avenue, it’s a fascinating story about Madison Avenue. Madison Avenue, as everybody knows, is the symbolic representation of advertisement. Advertisement is a capitalist development, and it’s primarily coming from the advertisement of new ships or ships coming in with new captive Africans into the Americas, and particularly into the United States. And also, on the other side of the advertisement, was runaway Africans, runaway enslaved Africans. People, owners of these enslaved Africans, going to people to write up information about who was running away, and to do it in such a way that will make it very attractive and make it very conducive to somebody going out and looking for them.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying some of the first ads were for runaways to be caught and also to let people know about slave auctions.

SAM ANDERSON: Know about — right. And from there, from that whole advertisement hyping and that whole — that was a whole — how would you say? — industry that developed from the backs of Africans.

AMY GOODMAN: And advertising in New York, Madison Avenue, where slave auctions would be, when slaves were brought in. Well, that does it for a much too short show. I want to give people some email addresses.

Katrina Brown, as you work on your documentary, Traces of the Trade, how can you be reached?

KATRINA BROWN: I can be reached at kaseyb2(at)aol.com.

AMY GOODMAN: kaseyb2(at)aol.com. Sam Anderson’s book, The Black Holocaust for Beginners, is published by Writers and Readers Press in New York. The Debt, and the whole movement, can be found on the web at thedebt.net. And I want to thank Deadria Farmer-Paellmann for joining us, as well, as well as the Reverend Virgil Wood.

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