Tue 17 Feb, 2009
Tags: Byron Rushing, Historical amnesia, Legislation, Massachusetts, Reparations, Slave trade, Slavery
Massachusetts state representative Byron Rushing has re-introduced his slavery-era disclosure law, “An Act Relative to the History of Slavery in the Commonwealth.”
Rushing’s bill would require companies doing business with the state to research and report their connections to slavery (and those of any predecessor companies) prior to 1889. The secretary of state, in turn, would use this information to publish a history of slavery and the slave trade in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts would become the fourth state, after Illinois, Iowa, and California, to pass a slavery-era disclosure law since 2000. Nine major cities have also passed ordinances requiring companies seeking to do business with the cities to reveal any ties to, and profits from, slavery. These cities include Berkeley, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco.
The purpose of these disclosure laws is to encourage public awareness and discussion about the role of slavery in our nation’s history, with a particular emphasis on the heavy involvement in slavery of all regions of the country, and of many companies familiar today, or their predecessors. Records from such well-known companies as Aetna Insurance, New York Life, AIG, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, have also revealed a trove of previously undiscovered details about the role of slavery in our nation’s economy.
As a firm believer in the importance of public awareness of this history and its significance, I suspect that these laws, despite their piecemeal nature and uneven treatment of companies, make an important contribution to the public discourse about the legacy of slavery for our nation.
These disclosure laws are often criticized as laying the groundwork for reparations for slavery, and indeed, several major corporations have decided to make multi-million dollar contributions to causes related to the legacy of slavery, after being forced to publicly reveal their ties to slavery. However, while there are sound arguments against many proposals for slavery reparations, surely one of the weakest arguments would be that historical information needs to be suppressed as dangerous or as potentially useful to reparations advocates.
In full disclosure, Representative Rushing has long been a supporter of Traces of the Trade and, in addition to his other contributions, he and I have appeared together in public to discuss the history detailed in the film.
Update: The House Clerk’s office has now assigned a bill number, H 3148, to this legislation. The bill has been assigned to the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development, chaired by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who is expected to schedule a public hearing on the bill at a later date.
The full text of the bill can now be read on the state legislature’s web site, here, and I’ve linked to it above, as well.