Wachovia apologizes for ties to slavery of its predecessors

Two ex-Baltimore banks profited indirectly

June 03, 2005|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SUN STAFF

Wachovia Corp. publicly apologized yesterday for two predecessor institutions that owned slaves or allowed them to be used as collateral, and it revealed that two of Baltimore's oldest banks profited indirectly from slavery.

The nation's fourth-largest bank disclosed its ties to the slave trade in a 111-page report to comply with a Chicago ordinance requiring companies that do business with the city to determine whether they had profited from slavery, which was abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

"I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent," said G. Kennedy "Ken" Thompson, Wachovia's chairman and chief executive officer. "We know that we cannot change the past, and we can't make up for the wrongs of slavery, but we can learn from our past and begin a stronger dialogue about slavery and the experience of African-Americans in our country."

Wachovia hired a research firm, the History Factory, this year to draft its report. A seven-person team spent more than 1,800 hours mining records from sources including the Library of Congress and the Maryland Historical Society. The team pored over old bank ledgers, newspapers and personal letters. It looked at 400 institutions that dated to 1781 and eventually became part of Wachovia, focusing on 19 of them.

Companies have launched historical fact-finding missions after Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit passed similar laws calling for disclosure of financial links to slavery.

Meanwhile, lawsuits have sought billions of dollars in reparations for descendants of slaves from such corporations as R.J. Reynolds Co., Aetna Inc. and CSX Corp.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. disclosed that a predecessor bank in Louisiana allowed slaves to be used as collateral. The company apologized in January and set up a $5 million college fund for students in the state.

Wachovia plans to work with community groups to further education about African-American history.

The Wachovia researchers found that the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co., founded in 1833 to complete a railroad between Augusta and the interior of the state, used slave labor and owned at least 162 slaves. The company later sold the railroad business and became part of First Union Corp. in 1986. First Union bought Wachovia and took its name in 2001.

The Bank of Charleston, founded in 1834, accepted at least 529 slaves as collateral on mortgages or loans and took possession of those slaves when customers defaulted. Wachovia's connection to the bank can be traced through a 1991 merger with South Carolina National Corp.

The researchers also looked into the Bank of Baltimore, which was established in 1795 and came into the Wachovia network through First Union. Its founders owned an undetermined number of slaves. Baltimore County records showed that one founder, George Salmon, emancipated a slave, thought to be a 20-year-old named Sulky.

The researchers said the Bank of Baltimore profited indirectly from slavery through its relationship with Maryland, which was a slave state that had $174,000 invested in the bank's stock.

The Savings Bank of Baltimore, established in 1818 to cater primarily to the poor and working classes in the city, indirectly benefited from slave labor through antebellum stock investments in Virginia, which also was a slave state. The researchers also noted that they uncovered references to the accounts at that bank held by free blacks.

Wachovia spokesman Scott Silvestri said a public housing development project in Chicago prompted the bank's soul-searching. "While that brought the need for the research, we thought it was important for us to be completely up front about everything," he said.

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