NPR News with Tony Cox 9:00 AM EST NPR
TONY COX, host:
Historians are still poring over the details of an announcement by JP Morgan Chase & Company acknowledging that it was once linked to America's slave trade through the purchase decades ago of two Louisiana banks that once profited from human bondage. JP Morgan is the nation's second-largest bank. In a written statement to its employees last week, bank executives apologized for contributing to, quote, "a brutal and unjust institution," end quote. The bank began looking into its past two years ago after the city of Chicago passed an ordinance requiring companies that do business with the city to research their history to determine any connections to slavery.
Joining me now from JP Morgan's Chicago branch is Calmetta Coleman, vice president of media relations.
Calmetta, thank you for coming on.
Ms. CALMETTA COLEMAN (Vice President of Media Relations, JP Morgan Chase): Sure. Thanks so much for having me.
COX: Here's my first question: Was the apology because you didn't know about these banks or because of what they did?
Ms. COLEMAN: The apology is because of the actions of Citizens and Canal banks, those banks that were predecessors of ours. Slavery, while it was ingrained in the American economy, was clearly a tragic chapter in our history and in our bank's history, not only the country's, so of course we apologize for that. Anytime you look at the documents and actually see the names of enslaved individuals, you really can't help but feel the pain and be saddened by it.
COX: I know that the city of Chicago required that companies doing business there look into their pasts, as we indicated in the introduction, but beyond that and beyond what you did in Chicago, are there other banks that you purchased that you suspect may have been involved in the slave trade, and are you even looking into that?
Ms. COLEMAN: You know, this particular research was far-reaching and very complex. It included, actually, all of our predecessor companies, so it was in the US and actually it was worldwide. We also searched our predecessors' histories in the UK. And it took some 3,500 hours of research by these 12 historians and researchers, and so it's been a pretty thorough search.
COX: So you found nothing else?
Ms. COLEMAN: No. We obviously looked in other places where--other states in the US where slavery had been going on during that time period, and so far found nothing.
COX: So you're also setting up, as I understand it, a scholarship fund for African-American students in Louisiana to make amends for slavery--sort of a reparations in higher education, isn't it?
Ms. COLEMAN: No, let me start by saying it's not reparations or even really restitution. What we are doing we feel is appropriate in that those communities in Louisiana were affected by the actions of Citizens and Canal banks, and we understand that slavery has had really far-reaching and long-lasting effects, and that one of the only ways to improve the lives of people long-term is through education. So what we are doing down there we feel is appropriate, and it's consistent with our given guidelines.
COX: Final question is this: What's been the reaction so far, particularly in and around Chicago, to your announcement about the apology?
Ms. COLEMAN: It's still been maybe a little too early to tell. We have heard from people mostly that they're pleased and they believe that what we're doing is appropriate. Our employees, for instance, we have heard from through the Web site that we set up. People can go onto that and give us feedback, and what we've heard so far is that people are pleased with the research that we've done and that we disclosed it in the manner that we did, particularly from our employees.
COX: Calmetta Coleman, vice president of media relations for JP Morgan Chase & Company.
Calmetta, thank you very much for coming on.
Ms. COLEMAN: Sure.
COX: Now for a reaction to the bank's apology, we have with us Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, who serves as legal adviser to Chicago Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman and the National Reparation Convention Committee.
Nice to have you on, Charles.
Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law School): Pleasure to be on.
COX: You heard Calmetta Coleman just say that it was not reparations, and I know that you are a longtime advocate of reparations, so what is it, reparations or not?
Prof. OGLETREE: Of course it's reparations and it's absurd to say that it isn't. It's an apology for what happened during slavery. The bank admits having more than 13,000 slaves as collateral. It also is something that, as we believe, enlightens and improves the reparations movement. Here we are in the 21st century, and finally a company has had the courage to come forward to admit the past. And Alderman Dorothy Tillman and her daughter, Ebony, found this evidence even before the bank did, so we're glad that the first steps have been taken.
COX: Is this a suggestion to you and to Alderwoman Tillman that perhaps other companies are likely situated...
Prof. OGLETREE: Oh...
COX: ...meaning that they have connections like this?
Prof. OGLETREE: There are other companies similarly situated and we know that. This conference we're going to be having in Chicago in March will reveal some of that. And historians, history buffs and ordinary citizens will find these documents are important and find that JP Morgan is the first, but not the last, company to have extensive connections with slavery and those will all be revealed. This is also important for the Tulsa race riots case, because in 1921, a similar thing happened in Tulsa and that case is in the federal courts. So all this evidence is coming forward at a critical time to reinvigorate the reparations movement in America.
COX: In your opinion, is this, the reparations--whether you call it that or not--is it the appropriate response to the company's involvement with slavery?
Prof. OGLETREE: It's the beginning of a response. It's not entirely appropriate. The $5 million for the children in Louisiana is a very good start. There will be more. An apology to all African-Americans is an important start. An acknowledgement of the tragedy of slavery is an important start. It's just the beginning of very long effort. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and the reparations effort will take us well into the 21st century. But on behalf of all the descendants of African slaves, we have to do this to make sure that history is correct, apologies are given and that America can move forward in the 21st century. This is a very important first step, and Alderman Tillman, the Chicago City Council and the mayor deserve credit. And other cities are doing the same thing that Chicago's done, and we're all encouraged by that.
COX: Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree serves as legal adviser to the National Reparation Convention Committee.
Nice to have you on. Thank you very much.
Prof. OGLETREE: Pleasure to be with you.
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COX: It's 17 minutes before the hour.