Slave Insurance: lawmaker wants CT companies to share old records

Reward poster for runaway slave - Library of Congress

In 1855, the Aetna Life Insurance Co. issued a policy covering the life of a slave in Mississippi named Peter, who was listed as a “laborer.” Like most slave insurance policies, he was only identified by his first name.

Hundreds if not thousands of similar policies on the lives of slaves were issued by lots of American insurance companies, and an influential African-American state lawmaker says those records could be of value to lots of people in Connecticut.

State Sen. Toni Harp is an influential African-American lawmaker from New Haven who believes Connecticut should follow the lead of several other states and require insurance companies to provide information on slave policies they issued.

The issue stirred up major controversy about a decade ago, including a lawsuit against Aetna that was eventually dismissed and an attempted boycott against the company. Aetna officials issued an extraordinary apology and argued they have invested tens of millions of dollars in programs targeting the nation’s African-American community.

But Harp’s interest is understandable.

Connecticut was, after all, considered the “Insurance Capitol of the World” for a long, long time. Harp says companies headquartered here may have information that could help African-Americans trace their ancestry.

“I think it’s really important,” Harp says. “It’s important for some families who may have had members [who were slaves] insured… I think that kind of information can be really helpful.” Harp was interested enough to ask the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research to look into the issue.

The OLR report says states that now require insurance companies to provide information on slave policies include California, Illinois, Maryland and Iowa.

Most of the insurance outfits subject to those state requirements responded by saying they couldn’t find any records of slave policies, usually because records from the slavery era were destroyed or lost decades ago.

But some interesting statistics and information have turned up, and they cover plenty of companies besides Aetna.

That policy issued by Aetna Life Insurance Co. for the Mississippi slave named Peter was actually first discovered by ACE USA, the successor to the Insurance Company of North America and Aetna Fire. ACE reported about the policy to California officials.

Aetna was incorporated in Connecticut in 1853, the same year it separated from Aetna Fire. The big Connecticut life insurance company also did extensive research as a result of the California law and reported it had found seven slave-related policies, several of which insured the lives of a number of individual slaves.

Officials at Aetna say their own research eventually turned up evidence of 24 slaves whose lives were insured by their owners. Company officials say their archives from that era are “limited and incomplete.”

“Aetna has acknowledged openly that, for a few years after its founding in 1853, the company insured the lives of slaves,” according to a statement provided by Aetna spokeswoman Cynthia B. Michener. “We have expressed our deep regret for our participation in that practice.” She says the company does make the results of its internal investigation open to the public.

The New York Times reported that one of the Aetna policies was issued in October 1853 to a Mary Raby, who insured one or more slaves for a year at a cost of $12.25. If the slave or slaves died, Aetna would pay out $600.

While the American Civil War put a bloody end to slavery in this country, and thus an end to offering policies insuring the lives of slaves, it had another interesting impact on Aetna and Connecticut.

The company’s official history notes that, as the war began in 1861, Aetna launched “an aggressive promotional effort” to sell life insurance policies — a big gamble at a time when its competitors were spooked by the outbreak of war. By the time the smoke had cleared from the battlefields four years later, “Aetna was one of the nation’s leading life insurance insurers,” the company’s history says.

Other insurance companies had better luck tracking down slave policies. The American Home Assurance Co. reported its predecessor company, United States Life Insurance, offered coverage for slaves on at least 174 policies.

New York Life found that, of the first 1,000 policies issued by its predecessor, 339 covered the lives of slaves, and that they were usually for a one-year period and usually for less than $500.

Harp says her main goal in considering legislation was for genealogical and ancestry purposes. But she also thinks there might be the remote possibility of someone finding information that could lead to a class action suit, if any insurance policy payments were made after slavery was outlawed.

The co-chairman of the legislature’s Insurance Committee, state Rep. Bob Megna of New Haven, says it’s possible that legislation on slave insurance reporting could get through this year, even though Harp’s request came in very late. “I’m looking for a vehicle now,” he says.

Harp doesn’t sound like she’s going to give up: “If we don’t do something this year, I’m going to offer a bill next year.”

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