Slavery profits are aim of bill
Womble wants to know which contractors with state have slavery past
By David Rice
JOURNAL RALEIGH BUREAU
Thursday, April 14, 2005
If any companies with state contracts made profits from the slave trade in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, state Rep. Larry Womble wants to know about it.
Womble, D-Forsyth, and Rep. Earl Jones, D-Guilford, are the sponsors of a bill that would require companies that contract with the state to search their records for participation in the slavery business and disclose any profits they derived.
The bill got a favorable recommendation yesterday from the House State Government Committee, of which Womble is a co-chairman.
Womble emphasized that the bill does not forbid companies that profited from slavery to do business with the state. The bill does say, though, that a state agency "may" cancel a contract with a company that fails to provide accurate information on its slavery profits in an affidavit.
"It doesn't preclude them from ... doing business. It's just to see if they profited from slavery," Womble said.
"It does not say that you will not get any business," he said. "It does not say that you will not get to bid. It doesn't say any of that. It's just to shine a light.... It's just shining a light on that part of our history."
Womble said that California and Chicago have adopted similar requirements. "We want to be sure we fall in the same ballpark," he said.
The bill also comes against the backdrop of a lawsuit filed in federal court in New York in 2002 on behalf of 35 million blacks.
The lawsuit asks for billions in reparations from the bank FleetBoston (which is now owned by Bank of America), the insurance company Aetna and railroad company CSX for money that it alleges their corporate predecessors made in the slave trade.
"I'm not personally aware of other companies in North Carolina that either participated in or profited from slavery," Womble said.
But like the eugenics program that the state ran in the mid-1900s, "it was a hidden secret," Womble said. "Nobody knew that the state went in and sterilized its own citizens.
"This is in the same vein," he said. "We know what the system was back in those days. We know that's how America was founded.... Most African-Americans are descendants of that kind of era, that kind of system.... We do need to acknowledge that the system existed in the United States."
Womble said that vestiges of slavery still exist in the form of segregated housing and a gap between wages earned by black and white workers.
However, some conservatives and business interests view the bill as flawed.
"This appears to be a symbolic act" said John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. "It's not attempting to solve a current public-policy problem."
Some corporate interests grumble privately that a requirement to search their records - if they exist - and disclose profits from 150 years ago would add bureaucracy to an already complex state-contract system.
The requirement might scare some companies away from bidding for state contracts, resulting in fewer bidders, Hood said.
"It has the potential to deter businesses from wanting to do business with the state," he said. "You're taking businesses out of the competition for contracts that may be the best qualified."
Involvement in slavery is difficult to track through human - or corporate - generations, Hood said.
"Going back and trying to punish companies involved with slavery is kind of like trying to punish people involved in slavery. It's impossible - they're dead," he said.
The records search could be extensive and complicated, Hood said.
"I think this would be litigated eventually. So I believe there would be a lot of administrative costs involved with implementing a law that has purely symbolic value, if any," he said.
Womble said he hasn't heard a word of opposition to his bill, which was filed March 31.
"I don't see it that way," he said. "I would say it's another opportunity to do what's right.
"I don't see what the big hullabaloo is," Womble said. "If you have done it, we're not making it punitive."
Womble said that the bill is not an attempt to gather evidence for a slavery-reparations lawsuit in North Carolina.
"That's not my intent," he said. "It's not gathering evidence for reparations ... payback or anything like that.
"This is about information - that's all it's about," he said.
"If a company decides that they do not want to participate in any business with the state of North Carolina, that's their prerogative," he said. "We're saying, at least check your files. To be honest, I don't know if records even exist from that long ago."