BOSTON — Massachusetts, which boasts a history of abolitionism, is considering legislation to determine how much the state and local institutions profited from the African slave trade.
A bill before the legislature would require some of Massachusetts oldest banking, financial and insurance companies to look deep into their history — and the histories of subsidiaries and predecessor companies — to uncover links to the slave trade, as a condition of doing business with the state.
It also would authorize the secretary of state to produce a book documenting to what extent the state, since the times of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, benefited from slavery, whether through taxes or economic growth.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, said understanding that difficult history is key to any future discussion of apologies or reparation claims tied to slavery. He said most people underestimate the economic significance of slavery to the growth of the country and the state.
“Part of the problem is that people are ignorant of what slavery actually was,” he said. “Most people’s views of slavery are attached to abolition — not the ongoing horror of slavery, but the end of slavery.”
The focus on Massachusetts may seem misplaced at first. The state was the first to abolish slavery, recording no slaves in a 1790 federal census, Rushing said. Massachusetts also was a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up to the Civil War.
A monument to the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, the band of Black soldiers who charged entrenched Confederates during an attack on South Carolina’s Battery Wagner, sits opposite the Statehouse.
But while the state distanced itself from slavery early in the nation’s history, some Massachusetts residents and institutions continued to profit from the trade up to and even after the Civil War when the trade continued to flourish outside the country, Rushing said.
One prime target is insurance companies that offered policies to slave owners covering their slaves.
Massachusetts isn’t the first state to consider untangling its historic economic ties to the slave trade.
California passed the nation’s first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and Iowa has also begun requesting the same disclosures.
Not everyone in Massachusetts thinks digging up the past should be a top priority, particularly as the state grapples with plummeting revenues and budget cuts.
House Republican leader Rep. Brad Jones, called slavery “a historical stain that is never going to be erased,” but said the proposal sounds more like an academic or historical project best undertaken by a university rather than state government.
He said lawmakers should be focused on more immediate, pressing needs like helping revive the state’s flagging economy.
“People are going to continue to say, ‘what are those guys doing up there?’” Jones said, adding that he was unsure of the practical implications of the bill. “Is the goal to derive some money to pay somebody?”
Business leaders also sounded leery about being required to dig deep into their past for ties to slavery.
Brian Gilmore, executive vice president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents 7,000 businesses and employers, said he hadn’t read the bill, but said most businesses are having enough trouble just trying keep their doors open.
“I’m wondering about the purpose and the overall objective of the bill,” Gilmore said. “It seems to me that given the state of the economy and the concern about our future, we should be looking forward to positive issues rather than looking backward.”
Rushing concedes the state has a raft of more immediate concerns, but said that doesn’t negate the importance of uncovering uncomfortable truths.
“It’s very important that we tell the truth about our history,” said Rushing, one of only a handful of Black lawmakers on Beacon Hill. “Slavery gave this country a major economic advantage and we should talk about it.”