Insurance Policies on Slaves: New York Life’s Complicated Past
In its 19th-century beginnings, New York Life Insurance sold 508 policies covering slaves. Their descendants are grappling with it.
New York Life, the nation’s third-largest life insurance company, opened in Manhattan’s financial district in the spring of 1845. The firm possessed a prime address — 58 Wall Street — and a board of trustees populated by some of the city’s wealthiest merchants, bankers and railroad magnates.
Sales were sluggish that year. So the company looked south.
There, in Richmond, Va., an enterprising New York Life agent sold more than 30 policies in a single day in February 1846. Soon, advertisements began appearing in newspapers from Wilmington, N.C., to Louisville as the New York-based company encouraged Southerners to buy insurance to protect their most precious commodity: their slaves.
Alive, slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets. Dead, they were considered virtually worthless. Life insurance changed that calculus, allowing slave owners to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of an untimely death.
James De Peyster Ogden, New York Life’s first president, would later describe the American system of human bondage as “evil.” But by 1847, insurance policies on slaves accounted for a third of the policies in a firm that would become one of the nation’s Fortune 100 companies.
Georgetown, Harvard and other universities have drawn national attention to the legacy of slavery this year as they have acknowledged benefiting from the slave trade and grappled with how to make amends. But slavery also generated business for some of the most prominent modern-day corporations, underscoring the ties that many contemporary institutions have to this painful period of history.
Banks absorbed by JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo allowed Southerners seeking loans to use their slaves as collateral and took possession of some of them when their owners defaulted.
Like New York Life, Aetna and US Life also sold insurance policies to slave owners, particularly those whose laborers engaged in hazardous work in mines, lumber mills, turpentine factories and steamboats in the industrializing sectors of the South. US Life, a subsidiary of AIG, declined to comment on its slave policy sales.
Wachovia, one of Wells Fargo’s predecessor companies, has apologized for its historic ties to slavery as have JPMorgan Chase and Aetna.
More than 40 other firms, mostly based in the South, sold such policies, too, though documentation is scarce and most closed their doors generations ago.
New York Life survived. Its foray into the slave insurance business did not prove to be lucrative: The company ended up paying out nearly as much in death claims — about $232,000 in today’s dollars — as it received in annual payments. But in the span of about three years, it sold 508 policies, more than Aetna and US Life combined, according to available records.
Now, the descendants of one of those slaves — who were recently identified by The New York Times — are coming to terms with the realization that one of the nation’s biggest insurance companies sold policies on their ancestors and hundreds of other enslaved laborers.
Policy No. 447 covered Nathan York, a slave who toiled in the Virginia coal mines where the earth often collapsed on its subterranean work force. Policy No. 1141 insured a slave known as Warwick, who fed the fiery furnaces on a Kentucky steamboat. Policy No. 1150 covered Anthony, who labored amid the whirling blades of a sawmill in North Carolina.
The handwritten record of sales, insurance premiums and expenditures, many described here for the first time, illuminate the inner workings of a company born before the Civil War. That history has stirred anxiety among some New York Life executives, who take pride in their multiracial work force and customer base. They worry that news coverage about the company’s ties to slavery may overshadow their efforts to provide philanthropic support to the black community.
New York Life hired one of the insurance industry’s first black agents in 1957. African-Americans currently account for 13 percent of the firm’s employees, including its senior vice president for governmental relations, George Nichols III, who reports directly to the chief executive.
The company donates millions of dollars annually to causes and groups that benefit African-Americans, the executives said, pointing to a $10 million endowment to the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York, sponsorship of the National Museum of African American History & Culture and other initiatives. (The company was known as Nautilus Mutual Life Insurance; the name was changed to New York Life in 1849.)
“We profoundly regret that in the 1840s our predecessor company, Nautilus Insurance Company, insured the lives of slaves for a brief period of time,” Kevin Heine, a spokesman for the company, said in a written statement. “While we cannot change our history, our longstanding recognition of it has helped shape our commitment to the African-American community.”
The company’s connections to slavery drew attention in the early 2000s as California and more than a dozen localities, among them Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, began to require companies to disclose their slavery-era activities. The disclosure laws emerged in response to black activists and lawyers who pressed for reparations and a public reckoning with history. (A lawsuit filed against New York Life and other companies tied to slavery was dismissed in 2004 after a judge ruled that the African-American plaintiffs had established no clear link to the businesses they sued and that the statute of limitations had run out more than a century ago.)
New York Life executives found the old records in a storage room that served as an informal archive on the 16th floor of their headquarters, a trove of fraying ledgers and yellowing documents. They turned over the names of slaves and slaveholders as required by law and donated several of the accounting books to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where they are available to the public. The company stored the rest in a private corporate archive.
Company officials allowed The Times to review several ledgers from its archive, but declined to allow a reporter to interview its archivist to determine whether additional records related to the slave policies still exist. The executives said that slave policies generated only about 5 percent of total revenues during the three fiscal years in which the policies were sold. They said the policies proved to be unprofitable and did not drive the company’s growth.
But historians say the slave policies had an impact on the company’s development. The company had two years to invest or spend much of the revenues from the slave policies before death claims exceeded annual premium payments, according to Dan Bouk, a historian at Colgate University who has studied 19th- and 20th-century insurance companies, and reviewed the company’s figures at the request of The Times.
The policies helped New York Life establish an early foothold in the South, which distinguished it from its larger competitors, said Sharon Ann Murphy, a historian at Providence College. Its agents continued to insure white lives in the region after the slave policies were discontinued.
“Slave policies were an opportunity for them to break into the industry and they actively promoted these policies in the early years,” said Ms. Murphy, who is the author of a book about the emergence of the insurance industry before the Civil War.
“We can be disturbed by this, but we shouldn’t be surprised by it,” she said. “It wasn’t just Southern companies that benefited from slavery; many Northern institutions also benefited directly or indirectly.”
The advertisement appeared in the Richmond Enquirer on Jan. 29, 1846. It described a new firm offering life insurance for slaves employed in any “occupation where there may be danger or risque.”