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2 California cities look at profits from slavery

Movement may lead to restitution payments

Published: Monday, March 21 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

City councils in two California cities could put the state in the forefront of a growing national movement to force companies to disclose whether they profited from slavery.

Richmond's City Council adopted an ordinance March 1 requiring that its pension and investment funds divest themselves from financial institutions linked to slavery. Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid is crafting a similar measure, which he plans to introduce April 12.

Both measures stem from a law signed in 2000 that made California the first state to gather information from companies believed to have written insurance policies in the slavery era. Lawmakers in New York and Philadelphia recently debated their own disclosure proposals.

When Chicago enacted its own law in 2002, JPMorgan Chase found that two banks it once owned accepted 13,000 slaves as collateral for loans made to Louisiana landowners in the 1800s. When some loans defaulted, the banks took possession of more than 1,200 slaves. In January, the bank apologized and established a $5 million scholarship fund for blacks in Louisiana.

Some activists are hopeful these laws may one day help secure reparations for black Americans.

Richmond Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who proposed the measure along with fellow Councilwoman Mindell Penn, said the city's new law was inspired by the events in Chicago and could affect the 36 percent of blacks in Richmond who relocated there from slaveholding Southern states, particularly Louisiana, during the 1940s.

"We have a lot of Southern blacks who now live here who may be affected by the publication of records having to do with their families," said Viramontes, who believes those blacks could ultimately stake a financial claim to funds like those established by JPMorgan.

"If there is a significant number of families here from that pool, then it may be worth submitting a request to some of those institutions," said Viramontes.

The ordinance would also seek to identify any international institutions that benefit from present-day slavery, such as in parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

"It is very difficult to force companies to make disclosures where this is occurring," said Viramontes. "The idea of making sure that our investments aren't involved in any of these activities going forward is very important."

It's unclear if there are any companies currently in the city's investment portfolio that might fit the requirements of the ordinance, said Bruce Soublet, who works for the Richmond city attorney's office and drafted the law.

"I don't know that any other city in California has (adopted such a law), " said Soublet.

Richmond's investment pool is about $150 million. Viramontes said she also hopes to put the issue before Contra Costa County's investment board, which oversees about $3.5 billion.

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