…a practice buried in company archives for 150 years
In the words of one Google contributor, “Who knew?”
A book given to me by a friend weeks ago took its place on an out-of- the-way shelf for a while for good reason. Its title, which is Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana, spoke to me of a rather arcane subject that might attract an erudite law professor, which I am not. It might have been forgotten there indefinitely had I not opened it one day and by chance saw a passage relating to the slave revolt in St. Domingue. It fit into a theory about slave smuggling, about which I wrote on June 12, 2010.
Now I have once again paged through the index, and to my surprise found a reference to “Insurance”: four pages plus a couple of footnotes, revealing a discussion about life insurance on slaves. I was fascinated. This was a subject about which I had never heard anything at all. While it was being mentally processed, it competed for attention with a conscious review of my forty years in the life insurance business.
My career was mostly in sales, but I had spent seven years in management, teaching the business. I had been to the Home Office, to the archives. I was recognized by others as a “student of the business.” I wrote a few articles, and was sometimes invited to conventions – besides the one for which I had qualified – to give speeches. I was a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) and a life member of the Million Dollar Round Table.
In short, as an agent, I was a professional. But I had never heard that we sold life insurance on slaves. It was not easy to come to grips with.
The few pages in the book suddenly did not matter much. What mattered was to find out if there was any other body of information about this subject. As usual, a salute to Google. What I found was that over the years there had been some minimal amount of study of the subject, including one 1977 book that may have treated the matter in detail. I have yet to investigate it. Also, I read that one might buy copies of some slave policies on eBay.
What jumped off the Google pages, however, was something else: the power of the courts, even after all these years. It seems that one young law student, Deadrea Farmer-Paellmann, in 1997 happened across some curious suggestions while preparing a paper about reparations for a class. As a descendant of slaves, this meant more than it might to someone else, and she pursued it, particularly with Aetna Insurance. According to an article in the New York Times onMay 5, 2002, Ms Farmer-Paellmann was the lead plaintiff in an on-going federal suit, claiming that certain companies profited from the practice of insuring slaves.
An Outburst of Conscience
It is not clear as of this writing as to whether Ms Farmer-Paellmann’s discovery was at the root of a California investigation begun in 2000, but it seems probable. What happened in fact was a virtual outburst of conscience, not just by California, but also by Iowa in 2003 and Illinois in 2004. Iowa called for voluntary compliance, but California and Illinois required companies doing business in the respective states to search their records and to compile information about the practice, including names of slaves and slave masters, and other details.
A quote from the California legislature follows:
Insurance policies from the slavery era have been discovered in the archives of several insurance companies, documenting insurance coverage for slaveholders for damage to or death of their slaves, issued by a predecessor insurance firm. These documents provide the first evidence of ill-gotten profits from slavery, which profits in part capitalized insurers whose successors remain in existence today.
The response from the various companies was enormous. In the case of Illinois, a database was created giving particulars for ten states plus the District of Columbia where there were insured slaves. These are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Details include slave and slaveholder, location policy number, and slave job skill.
Virginia ranks high, with approximately 280 listings, but surprisingly Kentucky is at the top with close to 500. As my interest is primarily Mississippi, I took an accurate count, and it – also a surprise – is only 22. Some question must be considered about the accuracy of the count, as it is known that in many cases records no longer exist.
All Mississippi slaves were located at Natchez. As might be expected, there are fewer than 22 masters, as they sometimes individually insured several slaves. All slaves are listed with one name only, with four exceptions. Job descriptions range from house servant to saw mill worker. One was a barber, another, a boatman.
Using the Iowa report to exemplify the inquiries of the several states, it was found that of 112 insurance companies which responded, most had not been in business early enough to be a part of the problem. However, many companies whose start date postdated the end of slavery had taken over smaller companies, called predecessors, which may have done slavery business. Of those whose reports were significant, the primary companies were ACE USA, Aetna. AIG, Manhattan Life, New York Life, Penn Mutual, Providence Washington, and Royal and Sun Alliance.
The company that I represented for my career was New York Life. I have had, and continue to have, enormous respect for NYLIC. Until my children became independent, every bite of bread they ever had came through New York Life. I have often said that it is a company with a conscience. One of my daughters is now a long-term professional and successful agent, ranking among company leaders.
So as not to color its report with my personal feelings, I quote below the Iowa report on the company.
New York Life Insurance (NYLIC) reported that it undertook an extensive review of its slavery era archival records, including published histories of the company, Policy Registers, Index of Applicants and Death Claim Book. NYLIC also reported that it retained outside professional archivists to assist with the research effort.
NYLIC’s predecessor, Nautilus Insurance Company, began writing life insurance policies in 1845. [Ed. Note: I think this is an error. My memory is that it was in 1841, and that NYL began in 1845.] NYLIC stated that Nautilus sold slaveholder policies for approximately two years in the 1840’s. On April 19, 1848, approximately fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the trustees of Nautilus voted to end the sale of such policies.
NYLIC reported that of the first 1,000 policies written by Nautilus, 339 were on the lives of slaves. The slaveholder policies were usually written for less than $500 and for a term of one year. There were three death claims under the slaveholder policies in the period under review, with a total of $1,050 paid. NYLIC provided a list of 484 slave names and 233 names of slaveholders.
NYLIC stated that it abhors the practice of slavery and profoundly regrets that its predecessor was associated with it in any way. It went on to state that the fact that slavery was legal in certain parts of the United States during that time does not make it any less repugnant. NYLIC stated that while it regrets this history, it understands the historical value of its archival records and that contributing to our society’s understanding of the slavery era and helping people trace their genealogy are laudable objectives.
Although my primary historical interest is related to Mississippi, I did search the records for Louisiana, and found six records, all in Orleans Parish. One of these may be coincidental, but on the other may be remarkable. It shows that one Mary Raby insured an unnamed slave on October 15, 1853, on policy number 128. The New York Times article cited above contains a little more information: “It was a 12-month policy for $17.25 from Aetna’s New Orleans office in October 1853. If the insured slave or slaves died, Ms. Raby would receive $600.”
What is perhaps remarkable here is the name Raby.
When I joined New York Life in 1958, there were no black agents. After a few years, sometime about 1965, I insured a young Afro-American named Jim Raby. He was a successful salesman, representing a tobacco company, and a college graduate. I kept up with Jim over the next few years, and I believe he bought an additional policy from me.
After a while, the word came from on high that New York Life ought to have a black agent in the city of New Orleans. I remember it was stated that we had not had one since Reconstruction. Our general manager at the time knew that I had been involved in some outside programs related to race issues, and asked whether I might be able to recommend a likely candidate for consideration. Jim Raby came to mind, and I approached him on the subject. I recall his words: “Heretofore such opportunities have not been available to people like me.”
Jim Raby went through the recruiting process and testing and was appointed. It was not the usual process, however, in which almost the entire decision rests with the general manager. It this case, a vice-president had to be flown down to New Orleans to personally interview and approve the appointment. That is the way things were in New Orleans a few years ago.
Jim was an immediate success, becoming eventually a Million Dollar Roundtable member. He is now retired. During his career, he recommended several other Afro-Americans to the company, who also became successful career agents.
I am proud of my part in this narrative. What I wonder is whether the name Jim Raby and Mary Raby are connected historically. Perhaps it is mere coincidence. However, it is well known that slaves often took the names of their masters (or mistresses).
The Mechanics – Rates and Underwriting
The book referred to at the beginning of this study, namely Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana, has published a rate card found in the files of an 1858 court case. It is headed, “Life Insurance on White Persons and Slaves,” and identifies the company as United States Life Insurance, Annuity and Trust Co., of Philadelphia, with a branch office in New Orleans. The general agent was Benjamin Florance, and the medical examiners were Richard Bein, M.D. and Joseph Bensadon, M.D.
Of particular interest is a separate card for slave rates. First class risks are those who were “house servants, employed by their owners at home.” Sample rates, per $100 of insurance, were $4.50 for 12 months at age 30 to 34; $5.50 for age 40 to 44. In addition, there were surcharges for classes 2 through 7. For example, class 4 included outdoor mechanics for an additional annual charge of $1.00 per year per $100 of coverage. Class 7 was to cover “Deck-hands, Firemen, &c. on Steamboats or Engineers; the additional charge for them was $4.00 per year. For the latter, assuming a deckhand age 35, the total rate was $9.00 per year for $100 of coverage.
Other particulars include a 2% extra charge if the slave was not “acclimated” and 1% if not vaccinated. There was a Medical Examination fee of $2.50.
The text covering some of the cases reaching the Louisiana Supreme Court describes in great detail many of the deaths and injuries occurring on steamboats. It leaves no doubt about the dangers of those who worked in the category covered in class 7. If the rates were accurate, it means the underwriters were allowing for roughly one death every year out of every ten slaves so involved.
It was estimated that slaves who were insured were covered for about two-thirds or three-fourths of value. Considering that a healthy male at the time before the Civil War would be worth as much as $1,200, premiums would constitute a substantial outlay.
If there is anything uplifting about the subject of insuring slaves and the costs thereof, it may be found, at least in my mind, that the masters did value their slaves.
There is an analogy in today’s insurance market.
People and corporations are still evaluating the lives of key men in business, and insuring them under what is known as “Key-Man Insurance.” Much of the business that I did in my career involved such sales, in which large policies were purchased on the lives of the more important persons who accounted for profits in business. Even the tax code allows for advantages, in that the flow of money to a corporation is usually tax free, in the same way as though paid to a personal beneficiary.
On balance, I still feel disturbed about the idea of insuring a slave. If it were not something to be ashamed of, why did we all hide? But the real problem is not so much the fact of insuring as it is of simply the practice of slavery. It all goes back to the beginning. The slave has no right to say no; the key man must approve and sign his name.
It is, after all is said and done, a matter of freedom.
The study of insurance on slaves was an outgrowth of a pursuit by Ms. Framer-Paellmann to gain reparations on behalf of her ancestors. As former slaves, they had been promised the traditional forty acres and a mule, but the government had never delivered. It was in this investigation that she happened upon the subject of insuring slaves, and thus filed her suit.
As of November 23, 2006, The Hartford Courant reported that Ms. Farmer-Paellmann’s suit had been dismissed in the previous year. She has appealed, but the outcome has not been found as of this writing.
The latest information I can find indicates that she serves as Adjunct Professor of Law at the South New England School of Law.