By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (March 10, 2009)—Law students and civil rights activists endorsed a bill Tuesday that would require insurance companies to report pre-1865 slaveholder insurance policies in order to do business in the state of Maryland.
The legislation would require insurance companies to disclose the information, including the names of the slaves and slaveholders involved, to the state's insurance commissioner. The commissioner would then prepare a report for the public that would also be posted on a state web site.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and members of the General Assembly would be provided with copies of the report.
"We need to learn a lot more, and part of the point of this bill is to provide us with some information about the role of insurance companies in all of these aspects of slavery and the slave trade," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland who testified alongside several of her students.
Ifill said insurance companies were connected to slavery in various ways, including issuing policies on individual slaves, receiving slaves as payment from debtors and permitting slaves to be used as collateral for loans. Before the slave trade was abolished in 1808, policies also existed for ships involved in the slave trade.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, was heard before the Senate Finance Committee. Similar legislation is already in place in California and Illinois, while Iowa requested the information on a voluntary basis.
Disclosure of slaves' names could also help people trace their roots.
"It seems like a simple piece of information, but very often that's the missing piece," Ifill said.
Ifill testified alongside several students from her "Reparations, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice" seminar, which looks at the legal response to incidents of racial and ethnic violence and genocide nationally and internationally.
Law student Bryan Saxton testified about similar laws already in existence. Under Chicago's disclosure laws, Wachovia Corp. revealed connections to several predecessor entities that profited indirectly from slavery, including the Bank of Baltimore and the Savings Bank of Baltimore, he said.
Wachovia's extensive disclosure illustrated how closely the pre-Civil War economy was intertwined with the institution of slavery, and could provide a hint of what's to come.
Susan Russell, a member of Baltimore Racial Justice Action, said the bill would help people understand the far-reaching effects of slavery. She said it was important that any discussion include white Americans, many of whom have very little understanding of the extent of slavery's role in the pre-Civil War economy
"It will further the dialogue and, in a lot of cases, it will start the dialogue," she said.
University of Maryland history professor Ira Berlin also testified on behalf of the bill, saying it would help Maryland deal with its complex past.
"I think we're implicated in all kinds of ways both good and bad, and that's the way we are as people," Berlin said.
"It's important that we know who we are," he said.
Neither the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America nor the American Insurance Association had a comment on the bill at press time.
Joe Norton, a spokesman for American International Group Inc., said he could not comment on the proposed legislation, but he added that his company fully complied with a similar California law passed in 2000.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.