Pulse: Affairs: Forced Labor

Being a city contractor is hard work. You have to spend hours on RFQs and RFPs. You have to hire the right lawyers. And under Philadelphia’s new slavery disclosure law, you may have to spend a few thousand hours in the library as well. The law, passed earlier this year, requires all city contractors to either attest that they have derived no profits from slavery or reveal those profits in full.

Last month, in response to Philly’s law and similar measures in Chicago and Los Angeles, Wachovia Corporation released a 111-page mea culpa. The report acknowledged that two long-­forgotten Wachovia predecessor companies had owned slaves, though it noted that today’s Wachovia is against slavery and for diversity.

And yet, like a schoolboy who quits halfway into his thousandth Hail Mary, Wachovia may have more repenting to do. Hiring professional historians for 1,800 hours of library research isn’t enough for a bill that asks for the names of every slave and slave owner. While looking into the Bank of North America, a Wachovia ancestor, researchers only looked at the first 20 out of 150 linear feet of account ledgers, leaving 130 linear feet untouched. The task was too tedious, they said; the deadline was too soon; the library closed too early. “The process of viewing the ledgers is extremely slow and exacting” and would only “add to the list of unverifiable names,” they wrote.

Are they in violation of the law? Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown, sponsor of the legislation, says she wasn’t aware Wachovia hadn’t done a full search and would need to look into it. Meanwhile, the list of hurdles to doing business in the city is one slow and exacting item longer. —