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Milwaukee’s anti-slavery ordinance short on discovery

By Jeff Cota

On a document required by Milwaukee, every contractor doing work for the city must answer a question that represents a well-meaning but futile attempt to seek absolution for a nation’s shame.

A check mark alongside that question means that contractor admits that it has a history of investments or profits from antebellum slavery.

Legally, slavery died in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; practically, its vestiges endure in poverty-stricken pockets throughout the nation.

In 2005, Milwaukee joined a handful of American cities that require every company contracting for municipal work to disclose whether, in its business dealings, it ever profited from slavery. The ordinance, sponsored by then-Alderman Michael McGee of the 6th District, was to call attention to that stain on a nation whose founders ostentatiously declared, then mocked, the principle “that all men are created equal.”

Through much of the 20th century, the hand-me-downs of slavery were such practices as poll taxes, legalized segregation, growled demands of “Move to the back of the bus” and “Whites-Only” signs at water fountains and lunch counters. What rights and privileges white citizens took for granted, governments, either blatantly or tacitly, withheld from generations of African-Americans.

McGee’s attempt to lift the veil on the labyrinthine pasts of contractors was admirable. It ignited a debate on reparations, and it provided an important history lesson on matters of which many were ill-informed. Seven years later, has it made a difference?

The city’s affidavit of slavery-disclosure log records 3,836 contractors that do business with Milwaukee. Only one, JP Morgan Chase Bank, acknowledges ties to slavery. Milwaukee’s ordinance did not compel the disclosure, nor does it forbid contracts with companies that acknowledge links to antebellum slavery. However, if a company withholds such an acknowledgement, it will lose the contract.

JP Morgan Chase’s connection to slavery is indirect and was revealed in response to Chicago’s slavery disclosure ordinance. Between 1831 and 1865, Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana, “accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took ownership of approximately 1,250 of them when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans,” JP Morgan Chase said in its 2005 statement. Many years and changes in ownership later, JP Morgan Chase acquired the descendents of those banks.

Opponents of Milwaukee’s ordinance question how the city can hold a modern-day company responsible for the actions of its owners of 150 years ago, particularly when several acquisitions buffer the company.

It’s a valid point.

After seven years, Milwaukee’s slavery-discovery ordinance amounts to nothing more than a history lesson and an unfair characterization of one Milwaukee business. This nation should learn from past mistakes, but this history lesson doesn’t justify a law.

Jeff Cota is a copy editor with The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1825 or jeff.cota@dailyreporter.com.

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