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Chicago City Council Passes Slavery Legislation - 2002-10-03

The Chicago City Council says it will require all companies doing business with the city to disclose any profits they might have made in the past from slavery. Slavery was abolished in the United States nearly 140 years ago, but supporters of the new law say some companies still around today profited from slavery when it was legal.

Chicago is the first city in the United States to require companies doing business with it to disclose whether they profited from slavery before it was abolished in 1865. City Alderman Dorothy Tillman sponsored the legislation. It was to apply only to insurance companies, but was amended at Wednesday's council meeting to include all companies with city contracts. "I think America cannot be the America that it should be until America deals with the descendants of enslaved African-Americans," she said. "We are America's dirty little secret."

Ms. Tillman also supports a movement calling on the United States government and companies that profited from slavery to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. She says disclosures made under the new law could help win those reparations. That movement has not progressed far beyond the discussion phase, though many communities, including Chicago, have recommended that the U.S. Congress consider the issue.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley says the new law is not aimed at punishing companies who once profited from slavery, but rather to identify them. "This ordinance and resolution will not prohibit a company from doing business with the city or state, even if it had once profited from slavery, but it would shine a light on a disgraceful part of our nation's history," said Richard Daley. "It would help demonstrate how much of the nation's wealth was created by the sweat and blood of slave labor."

The insurance industry says it will cooperate with the new law. Sean McManamy is a spokesman for the American Insurance Association. It has about 400 member companies, only a few of which were in business when slavery was legal. "We are not sure that there is going to be this great treasure trove of information out there, if that is what people are looking for," he said. "We are happy to go in and pull out the information we are asked to pull out, but we do not really think there is going to be a jackpot of information that maybe some folks think they are going to find."

Last year, the state of California required all insurance companies doing business in the state to report whether they had ever issued policies to slaveholders. Seven companies said they were able to locate and report such information.