Detroit has followed the lead of two other large cities — Los Angeles and Chicago — in enacting legislation that requires companies seeking contracts with the city to disclose any profits they received from slavery.
The ordinance passed last week by the Detroit City Council came after one was approved in May 2003 by the Los Angeles City Council, and another in October 2002 in Chicago.
Under these measures, companies with ties to slavery would not be barred from receiving municipal contracts. But any firm found to have falsified its slave history would have its contracts voided.
“The purpose of this ordinance is to set the groundwork for [slavery] reparations. First, you have to get the information and show the companies that benefited from the slave trade,” Detroit City Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins, a former Democratic congresswoman from Michigan and sponsor of the Detroit ordinance, said Tuesday.
The black lawmaker put it this way last week in an interview with the Detroit News: “It has been quite a long time since African Americans were promised 40 acres and a mule. This ordinance only provides for the beginning of the process by requiring full disclosure.”
Detroit’s law, which takes effect today, says contractors must search their backgrounds and sign an affidavit, disclosing investments and income that they or their predecessors realized from the slave industry.
In addition, Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, enacted a separate piece of legislation on the matter two weeks ago.
City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who supported the new ordinance, has said the financial information that firms provide on the affidavits will be investigated by volunteer lawyers to determine its veracity.
Miss Collins calls the new law a “historic chapter in the life of our city, nation and our world.” She added she is “very proud” that Detroit has joined other jurisdictions in adopting an ordinance “which supports the reasonable documentation of the financial backgrounds of government contractors.”
The press has said the purpose of these ordinances has been largely symbolic. When the Chicago City Council passed its law in 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times described it as a “step toward racial healing” that Chicago lawmakers “hope that the nation will follow.”
Two years after urging Congress to confront the issue of slave reparations, the Chicago City Council — led by Alderman Dorothy Tillman, an advocate of reparations — unanimously passed a bill requiring city contractors to divulge their ties to slavery.
At the time, Mayor Richard M. Daley said railroads, banks, insurance companies and other businesses that profited from slavery still would be permitted to do business with the city, but he cautioned they would be forced to make amends for the past.
“We should not be afraid of … the disgraceful past. … Let’s do something about it. … Why can’t we pay our own citizens?” Mr. Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Asked whether those comments reflected support for measures seeking reparations to the descendants of slaves, Daley spokesman Robert Scarola said the mayor’s remarks speak for themselves.
When the Los Angeles City Council approved its law 13 months ago, former Councilman Nate Holden, sponsor of the ordinance, told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s important symbolically, if companies did, in fact, benefit from slave trade, we need to know it.”