Inside a Report on Slavery and Its Legacy

The names of the slaves line the pages of the 19th-century ledger books. Hundreds of names. Harriett. Warwick. Godfrey. Squire Lockett. Nathan York. Robert. Solomon. Alfred.

A ledger that includes slave policy information is on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

In the 1840s, New York Life, the nation’s third-largest life insurance company, sold 508 policies on enslaved men and women. The beneficiaries? Slaveholders, who collected cash after a slave’s untimely death.

I spent much of the year looking at institutions, particularly universities, that benefited from this painful period of American history; the idea was to better understand how the legacy of slavery reverberates through our own times. So as I studied the names in the fraying New York Life ledgers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I wondered: Could we identify their descendants?…



Read the complete story about how NYT reporter Rachel Swarns investigated and wrote about life insurance policies that allowed slave owners to recoup their slave’s “value” in the event of the slave’s untimely death.

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