Friday, January 20, 2017

In the News: Slave Insurance
The issue of slave insurance policies has recently been in the news. The New York Times published an article last month, "Insurance Policies on Slaves: New York Life's Complicated Past," while Michael Ralph and William Rankin just published their research data in Foreign Policy, "Decoder: The Slave Insurance Market" (with more information available on Rankin's "Radical Cartography" website).
     In 2000, the state of California commissioned a study on the topic, canvassing a number of life insurance companies and requesting a search of their records. This resulted in a 2002 report that outlined the information unearthed, which covered several states. In addition to the report itself, the Department of Insurance published a cache of documents on its website, collectively referred to as the "Slavery Era Insurance Registry": a chart organized by names of insured slaves; a table of slaveholders who had policies on their slaves; and photocopies of policies and other documents.
    The California initiative led to analogous studies by other states; Illinois published similar materials in 2004; Iowa and Maryland also commissioned reports but did not compile registers, though Maryland published company responses. A portion of  the Nautilus Insurance Company's Slavery Era Ledgers have been turned over to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; a few pages have been digitized. [Nautilus was a predecessor of New York Life.] A number of policies have been digitized on the "Unknown No Longer" project of the Virginia Historical Society. Finally, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro can be searched on "insurance on slaves" as a field.
     Slave insurance has been a research topic for some time (see especially Sharon Ann Murphy, "Securing Human Property: Slavery, Life Insurance, and Industrialization in the Upper South," Journal of the Early Republic 25 [Winter 2005]: 615-52, and her later book, Investing in Life, and Dan Bouk, "The Science of Difference: Developing Tools for Discrimination in the American Life Insurance Industry, 1830-1930," Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 2009 [both scholars are quoted in the NYT article]); it has been thrust into the spotlight by recent work on the connections between slavery and capitalism.