Wachovia Acknowledges Past Profits From Slavery

City Business Journals are reporting today that the mega-bank is looking at its past and neither minimizing or denying it profited from slavery.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia recently commissioned Chantilly, Va.-based historical research firm The History Factory to investigate its predecessor institutions…The investigation revealed two institutions that later became part of Wachovia through acquisitions — the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. and the Bank of Charleston — owned slaves.

Through specific transactional records, historians determined the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. owned at least 162 slaves and the Bank of Charleston accepted at least 529 slaves as collateral on mortgaged properties or loans, and subsequently acquired an undetermined number of slaves when customers defaulted on their loans.

Extensive Northeast banking interests eventually absorbed into Wachovia were also fat with slave profits, it was revealed.

According to the investigation, these banks outside the traditional South had founders, directors, or account holders who owned slaves and/or profited directly from slavery; invested in or transacted business with companies or individuals that owned slaves; invested in the bonds of slave states and municipalities; or invested in U.S. government bonds during years when the United States permitted and profited from slave labor directly through taxation…

Bank of North America (Philadelphia), The Philadelphia Bank (later Philadelphia National Bank), Girard National Bank (Philadelphia), Farmers’ & Mechanics’ Bank of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and the Granting of Annuities (Philadelphia), Bank of Baltimore, Savings Bank of Baltimore, State Bank of Elizabeth (New Jersey), and State Bank of Newark (New Jersey).

Wachovia, whether it set out to or not, is following the Truth and Reconciliation process pioneered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. After apartheid, whites feared blacks would rise up and kill them in revenge. That Israel/Palestine style conflict resolution didn’t happen, and Tutu won a Nobel prize as a result.

The crucial part of the process is acknowledging the crime or wrong-doing and its hurtful effects, then sincerely apologizing. Too often in this country, we deal with slavery by saying, “Oh that was a long time ago, and I didn’t personally own slaves.” That attitude is as helpful as denying slavery took place.

We also like to pretend that racism is confined to one geographic area, that the problem is in the South. We do this by refusing to see racism when it confronts us elsewhere. When a cross is burned in Durham, as three were recently, we call it a hate crime. When a cross is burned in Chicago, as it was last week, we call it a prank. When black people are killed by police in L.A., we say it’s a police brutality issue. When the same thing happens in Houston, we say it’s southern racism.

This allows us to perpetuate the myth that racism is a problem for other people, not for ourselves, and that it happens in some places, but not here. This blind eye does a disservice not only to those struggling to rise above prejudice everywhere, but particularly to the objects of racism. It’s more denial that they have a right to feel aggrieved.

Tutu says that until we, as a country, acknowledge our slave-holding past and the benefits it gave some of us while taking a huge price from others, we will continue to be mired in our race problems, endlessly trudging through the same old ground. Wachovia seems to get it:

“On behalf of Wachovia Corp., I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent,” said Ken Thompson, Wachovia chairman and CEO. “We are deeply saddened by these findings.”

Wachovia said it plans to partner with community organizations that are experts in furthering awareness and education of African-American history. Yesterday, Wachovia was named the principal sponsor of the National Center for Black Philanthropy (NCFBP) and national co-chair for its Fifth National Conference on Black Philanthropy.

“We know that we cannot change the past, and we can’t make up for the wrongs of slavery,” Thompson said. “But we can learn from our past, and begin a stronger dialogue about slavery and the experience of African-Americans in our country…”

Well said, Wachovia, and well done.


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