Even as Chase Manhattan prepares to take over J.P. Morgan, the bank’s past is returning to haunt it. Recently revealed documents show that Chase, which was already known to have helped the Nazis, aided slavery here at home as two of its predecessor banks worked with an insurance company to insure slave owners against loss. Chase is, as far as can be determined, the first company whose forerunners have been identified as aiding both the perpetrators of the destruction of the Jews in Europe and those who enslaved Africans and their descendants in America.
Chase currently faces a class-action lawsuit filed in the United States by Holocaust survivors and victims’ relatives who say their assets were frozen by Chase during World War II. Chase seized bank accounts and safe-deposit boxes from Jewish customers in France and did not return or properly account for them after the war, according to Kenneth McCallion, a lead attorney in the suit. In addition, a Treasury Department report declassified a few years ago concludes that Chase’s Paris branch served as a banker for the Third Reich. J.P. Morgan, whose Paris office also worked closely with the Germans, is named in the lawsuit as well.
About a hundred years earlier, two US banks that were later taken over by Chase were described in an 1852 information circular as servicers of insurance policies issued on the lives of slaves. Titled “A Method by Which Slave Owners May Be Protected From Loss,” the circular, put out by the National Loan Fund Life Assurance Company of London, describes, among others, The Merchants Bank and The Leather Manufacturers Bank, both of New York, as having the legal authority “to accept risks, adjust and pay claims.” The Merchants Bank merged in 1920 with The Bank of the Manhattan Company, which in turn merged with Chase in 1955, according to the New York State Banking Department and Chase’s website. The Leather Manufacturers Bank merged with The Mechanics National Bank in 1904, which then merged with Chase in 1926.
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, the lawyer whose research earlier this year forced the Aetna Insurance Company to make a public apology for writing slave insurance policies, uncovered the documents exposing Chase. These revelations are certain to bolster the growing movement for slavery reparations.
The presidents of the two banks are listed on the circular as members of the New York board of directors of the London insurance company. The circular names medical examiners in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, DC, who were authorized to examine slaves and also offers details about the insurance policies. For example: “A Slave aged 30 years can be insured for $500, for a year, for $11.25; and if he dies, the owner, although deprived of the revenue of his labour…will still not be unrecompensed for his loss; for there will still remain to him–not his Slave–but the $500 which constituted his value….” While it has still to be determined whether the two banks actually serviced any policies for slave owners, the existence of the circular proves that the banks actively sought and were part of such business.
Jim Finn, a Chase spokesperson, said that his organization needs more time to study the circular and related materials before he could comment. Farmer-Paellmann, who is continuing her research, said, “My hope is that if archival records show that policies were written, then Chase will apologize for helping to maintain that crime against humanity and pay restitution into a trust fund to benefit heirs of Africans enslaved in America.”
In early September Chase agreed to permit an investigator who had probed Swiss banks for their Holocaust-era activities to review its records to determine how Chase had helped the Nazis. Chase should immediately open its archives to slavery researchers as well. Only then will a full record be available to determine what reparations, if any, should be paid.