Slave Owners and Their Insurers Are Named
The California Department of Insurance on Wednesday identified half a dozen insurance companies that issued slavery-era policies and posted the names of hundreds of slave owners and the slaves they insured on the agency’s Web site.
For advocates of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves, the report provides a compendium of material that could advance their efforts by identifying companies that profited from slavery. At a minimum, the records unearth long-forgotten names of those who trafficked in slaves and detail the crass financial arrangements that undergirded the nation’s long embrace of trade in humans.
“These types of exercises give us a history lesson, and what the reparations movement is trying to do is concretely link the present and past by showing the lingering economic effects,” said Darnell Hunt, director of African American Studies at UCLA.
The report, posted at www. insurance.ca.gov, attracted more than 8,000 hits in the first three hours after it was released.
None of the firms named Wednesday are based in California. But a state law pushed by then-Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 requires all insurance companies doing business in California to publicly release information about policies they or their predecessor firms wrote insuring slave owners for losses if slaves died or ran away.
No other state has required insurance companies to compile and release such information.
The report includes 60 pages of charts listing more than 600 slaves by name and more than 400 slave owners. The listings are sketchy--slaves often are listed only by first name--but tantalizing, offering clues into the lives of slaves and their owners.
In one case, a man named Stephen Chenoweth of Louisville, Ky., took out insurance policies on five slaves named Tillman, George, Jack, Bob and John Owen. The policies, written by the predecessor of New York Life Insurance Co., say the slaves were to be employed as firemen, cooks or cabin boys on riverboats between Louisville and New Orleans.
According to the Kentucky Historical Society, the Chenoweths, originally from Virginia, were among the first settlers in Louisville. They established a fort called Chenoweth Station, and become targets of the last major raid on white settlers by Indians in 1789.
The Chenoweth clan became well-established and well-connected, said Ron Bryant of the historical society, which has a 600-page tome on the family. Bryant said records show that a Stephen Ross Chenoweth was listed in the 1850 Census as having a net worth of $20,000, a considerable sum at the time, and an 1848 Louisville directory listed his occupation as “jailer.”
“It means ‘slave jailer;’ he bought and sold slaves,” Bryant said.
William Werfelman, spokesman for New York Life, said the California law prompted the company to search its archives, finding that its predecessor company, Nautilus Insurance, wrote policies for slave owners for two years, in 1846-47, then discontinued the practice when the firm trustees voted to end the practice.
“New York Life 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,” Werfelman said. “The fact that slavery was legal in certain parts of the United States at the time doesn’t make it any less repugnant.”
New York Life provided a list of 484 names of slaves and 233 slaveholders. The company reported that the policies generally were written for less than $500 and were for one-year terms. New York Life turned its records over to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a part of the New York Public Library.
At the Schomburg Center, director Howard Dodson characterized the report as “a piece of evidence.” It is limited to insurance companies doing business in California currently, and does not include other industries that profited from slavery.
“I anticipated there would be a larger number of policies,” Dodson said.
“I knew that New York Life was in the business Some of the others were in much longer period of time.”
Other firms named include Aetna, AIG, Royal & Sun Alliance, Manhattan Life and Ace USA. Two other firms, Penn Mutual and Providence Washington, provided documents but nothing showing they had issued policies on slaves.
AIG produced a magazine article describing a $550 policy on a slave named Charles.
Among the policy’s exclusions: “death to said slave by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power, or in case the slave shall die by his own hand or in consequence of a duel or by the hands of justice.”
Another firm, Ace USA, found only a single policy on a slave identified only as a laborer named Peter in Mississippi. Ace reported that as part of its research to comply with the law, it obtained a database of 27,233 transatlantic slave ship voyages from 1595 to 1866.
For the most part, companies that issued policies for transatlantic shipping firms are not represented in the report, perhaps because they are out of business, or have no business in California, insurance department spokeswoman Nanci Kramer said.
One exception involved a marine insurance policy issued by Manhattan Life, and that policy did not cover shipping in the African-American trade.
Rather, Manhattan Life insured 720 Chinese slaves, called “coolies,” aboard the vessel Sea Witch, bound for Panama. The company covered one-fourth of the $84,000 insured value of the human cargo.
When three of the workers jumped ship and 11 others died on the voyage, Manhattan Life paid the owners $408, leaving the insurance company with a profit of $432.
Hunt said the material released Wednesday represented an incremental but important step in recasting the national discussion of race and slavery.
Targeting insurance companies helps reveal the “naked calculation,” Hunt added. It paints a picture of slaves as chattel insured like valuable jewelry, cars or homes.
The ultimate value of the information will only be known over time, said Douglas H. Daniels, professor of black studies and history at UC Santa Barbara.
The report, Slavery Era Insurance Policies Registry, makes no comment on the politically controversial issue of reparations. Indeed, it never uses the word. Neither Davis nor his appointee, Insurance Commissioner Harry Low, commented on the report’s contents.
Davis, who signed the Hayden bill into law in 2000, had planned to hold a news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles but canceled it. Davis press secretary Steve Maviglio said the governor “hasn’t taken a position on reparations.”
But in a comment that last week became fodder for Northern California talk shows, Davis, appearing with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., said: “Clearly, we want to right any wrongs, and do justice to people who were taken advantage of if that is the case. And I believe that will be the case.”
Jackson on Wednesday hailed California’s posting of the report as a “breakthrough” and praised Hayden for pushing the legislation, which he said would urge other states to follow.
“This is the key that opens the door to insurance companies and banks involved in the slave trade,” Jackson said.
But Bill Simon Jr., Davis’ Republican challenger in the race for governor, issued a statement criticizing the Democratic governor’s “divisive and politically motivated support for reparations.”
“Bringing up the wounds of our country’s past in a politically motivated attempt to shore up his political standing today is typical of Gov. Davis, who offers only politics, and no solutions,” Simon’s statement said.
“Americans feel pain for what happened over 150 years ago, but we cannot right the wrongs of history by handing out money generations later.”
Times staff writer Lisa Richardson contributed to this report.
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