The anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have led, among other things, to increased recognition of Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans in the US.
So it seems appropriate on this day to confront the role of slavery in the development of US infrastructure and finance, and the inadequate response to racial injustice in the present day.
By the time General Gordon Granger declared enslaved people in Texas free on June 19, 1865, thousands had already been forced to build one of the most extensive railroad networks in the world.
In recent decades, the corporations that still own this infrastructure – companies like CSX Corp, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific – have faced lawsuits and shareholder motions calling for reparations.
While the railroad companies undoubtedly benefited from the cheap labor, they did pay for the work done – but to businessmen who leased out enslaved people, rather than to the laborers themselves.
Black bodies were treated as liquid financial assets in every way, including as collateral for loans. If a borrower under such a mortgage defaulted, the act of foreclosure could and did separate enslaved family members from each other.
Slave traders would extend this type of credit to buyers in the form of purchase-money loans, but banks were also involved.
In 2005, JP Morgan Chase apologized for the role of two of its predecessor firms – Citizens’ Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana – which accepted about 13,000 humans as collateral between 1831 and 1865 and came to own 1,250 enslaved people as a result of defaults.
"We apologise to the African-American community, particularly those who are descendants of slaves, and to the rest of the American public for the role that Citizens' Bank and Canal Bank played,” wrote William Harrison, the bank’s then-CEO. “The slavery era was a tragic time in US history and in our company's history."
But the role of banks in perpetuating racial injustice did not end with slavery. Discriminatory practices such as redlining have continued up to the present day, with Hudson City Savings Bank, Evans Bank and Associated Bank among the institutions that have reached settlements in redlining cases since 2010.
Meanwhile, banks have struggled to improve diversity at senior levels. While JP Morgan managed to increase the number of black managing directors from 83 to 97 between 2017 and 2018, black people still only represent 4% of the company’s executive or senior level employees in the US. The equivalent figure for Citi was just 1.8% in 2018.
As corporations start to offer employees time to observe Juneteenth, it would be a good idea to use this time to reflect on our own responses to racial injustice. How many of us can say that we have done enough?