PHILADELPHIA – Wachovia Corp., the nation’s fourth-largest bank, has asked African Americans to forgive the company for its history of owning slaves and using them as loan collateral.

“We apologize to all Americans, and especially to African Americans and people of African descent,” Wachovia Chairman Kennedy Thompson said in a statement Wednesday.

Wachovia, based in Charlotte, N.C., came clean about the activities of its predecessor banks and their officers – including such prominent Philadelphians as Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris – under pressure from the cities of Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, which have passed laws calling on city contractors to disclose any history of making money from slavery.

Wachovia’s confession follows a January admission by JPMorgan Chase & Co. that a predecessor in Louisiana used slaves as loan collateral. By contrast, Bank of America Corp. has denied profiting from slavery, though acknowledging that its predecessor was founded by a slave trader. But Wachovia used a broader standard, declaring that investments by its predecessors in Southern-state and U.S. government bonds during slavery times were slavery-tainted.

Scholars of slavery were surprised and pleased by Wachovia’s report.

“Although it’s a late day, they should be saluted for their honesty,” said Charles Blockson, a scholar of slavery and curator of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University. “We all knew about (Stephen) Girard and the other bankers in Philadelphia, how they made money from slavery. But a lot of organizations and banks in the past have denied it. They had slipped it under the rug.”

According to the bank, “While we can in no way atone for the past,” Wachovia plans to help “preserve the African American story” by supporting “community organizations that are experts in furthering awareness and education of African American history.”

Wachovia’s predecessor bank in Georgia owned at least 162 slaves, and a South Carolina predecessor used more than 500 as collateral for loans, seizing some when their owners defaulted, according to a 111-page report prepared for Wachovia by History Factory, a corporate-research firm in Chantilly, Va.

The report, citing records from the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia and the Hagley Museum and Library near Wilmington, Del., also cited Robert Morris, who financed the Continental Army in the American Revolution, and his business partner Thomas Willing, who “amassed at least part of their personal fortunes from the slave trade” and “used their profits from the slave trade to fund the establishment of the Bank of North America,” a predecessor of CoreStates Financial Corp., which Wachovia (formerly First Union) bought for $20 billion in 1998.

Wachovia predecessors Philadelphia National Bank and Girard National Bank also “profited more indirectly from slavery” because they were run by, or invested in, people who made money from slavery under a broad test that included holding “U.S. government bonds during years when the United States permitted and profited from slave labor directly through taxation,” according to the report.

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The detailed report, and Wachovia’s willingness to discuss it, contrasts with slavery claims made on behalf of another big Philadelphia company in 2002.

That year, in response to a California slave-history disclosure law, Ace Ltd. said a search by scholars it declined to name showed no proof that its Philadelphia-based Ace INA division, descended from the colonial-era Insurance Co. of North America, had insured transatlantic slave cargoes.

But the Ace report was questioned by slavery scholars because it did not deal with insurance of slaves carried between Caribbean ports, the major focus of Philadelphia finance and trade in the early 1800s.



(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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AP-NY-06-01-05 1832EDT


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