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Slavery-disclosure bill aims to shed light on dark history

Zack Huffman | 11/4/2009, 4:30 a.m.

Maya Angelou once said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Perhaps State Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Ninth Suffolk) had that in mind when he introduced a bill that would require companies that want to do business with the state to disclose any past involvement with the institution of slavery.

“This legislation,” Rushing explained, “is designed to have the Commonwealth engage in the conversation and to look and explain to people what slavery was in Massachusetts and the participation of institutions and the government in supporting slavery and supporting the slave trade.”

 Entitled “An Act Relative to the History of Slavery in the Commonwealth,” the bill would charge the secretary of state with the task of compiling a comprehensive history of the businesses in Massachusetts that took part in any of the various facets of slavery.

“We are asking any corporations that existed during slavery, to research their corporate history for their involvement in slavery if any,” Rushing said. “In order to do business you would have to answer that question.”

As Rushing explained, the bill comes as part of a growing interest for a greater understanding of the history of slavery.

“There’s been a lot of work done in England that’s raised the idea of how corporations and governments were involved in the slave trade,” he said. “In the U.S. for the last 10 to 12 years we’ve had discussions about reparations.”

Although Rushing did not comment on whether or not he supported reparations, he did say his bill was an important step toward that conversation. “I think the question of reparations is premature if we do not know what the reparations are for,” he said.

In the early 17th century, Massachusetts became the first colony in the New World to allow the possession of slaves.

Although a 1783 court ruling made slavery illegal in Massachusetts, citizens of the Commonwealth were still permitted to profit from the continued institution of slavery.

“The court decisions that ended slavery did not affect citizens taking part in the slave trade,” said Rushing. “Ships could leave Boston, go to Africa and bring slaves to the Caribbean.”

Twelve other representatives have already signed on to support the bill.

“There hasn’t been a significant objection as to whether or not this should happen,” he said. “The major objection we’ve received is, ‘who’s going to pay for it?’”

According to Rushing, if there is any cost for the bill, it will come in the form of companies having to use their own resources to compile histories. If the companies already have collected histories, they would not have to compile new ones.

“Cost is really a separate question,” Rushing explained. “Once the bill passes, we will have to decide if the state can decide to do any of this research. There’s certainly no cost in getting the companies to do their work. Many of those corporations will have had to produce these histories for other jurisdictions.”

Aside from companies gathering their own histories, the bill also calls for the examination of federal and state laws that supported slavery as well as discrimination from the public and private sectors against freed slaves in Massachusetts.

Passage of Rushing’s bill would not be the first time a state has used legislative measures to gather information on slavery.

Massachusetts would join California, Illinois, Iowa and Maryland as states that have passed slavery-disclosure laws.

Nine major cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles have passed ordinances requiring companies to disclose slavery information in order to do business with the city.

According to Rushing, the bill is now under deliberation before the joint committee on tourism, arts and cultural development.

“We’d like to get this passed next year,” he said. “We’d like to start being able to gather information from corporations before the end of the legislative session.”