Revisiting Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan Chase History With Slavery

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
JP Morgan Slavery
JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon testifies before the House Financial Services Committee during a hearing, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Last week, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon was on Capitol Hill answering questions about the company’s role in slavery. Though it’s been more than 15 years since a 2002 Chicago ordinance spurred the top bank and Lehman Brothers to disclose their historical ties to slavery, the topic of paying reparations to Blacks who descended from slaves is still a highly relevant one.

Reparations are a buzzword among the Democrats running for president in the 2020 elections, with leading candidates weighing in — but providing few details — about the policies they’ll promote if elected.

The Chicago ordinance – which requires vendors who want to do business with the City of Chicago to reveal any ties to slavery – spurred the infamous admissions by the notable financial institutions.

Once among the nation’s top investment firms, Lehman Brothers is known to have had early success as cotton traders. In a 2003 affidavit, the firm confirmed it also profited from The Slave Trade in the 1850s, according to National Public Radio (NPR). The report by Cheryl Corley detailed its admission to purchasing a slave named Martha and possibly owning other slaves.

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In 2005, JP Morgan Chase admitted that two of its defunct predecessor banks, Louisiana-based Citizens Bank and Canal Bank, served as banks to plantation owners from the 1830s until the Civil War, according to a report by NBC News. JP Morgan said it received 13,000 slaves as collateral and owned 1,250 of them after owners defaulted on loans.

In a rare move, JP Morgan Chase apologized and set up a $5 million dollar scholarship fund for Black students from Louisiana to attend school in their home state.  The bank also provided an online link to information about the slaves it owned – albeit much of it was limited to unknown and/or first names.

While some praised JP Morgan Chase’s scholarship as a step in the right direction, other reparations activists said it wasn’t enough.

Ironically, Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 and eventually brought a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase. The former accused the latter of illegally siphoning billions of dollars before its collapse, according to Housing Wire. JP Morgan Chase had to pay more than $2 billion in settlements.

On its website, Workers World questioned whether the misfortune these and other American financial institutions have experienced over the years was karma for their roles in slavery.

The reparations discussion is one that will continue beyond the history of big banks and slavery. As usual, Twitter was ripe with reaction.

https://twitter.com/r_syllabus/status/1020410157786910721