Posted on September 13, 2005

Company Admits Slave History

Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 13

A financial services firm in line to be co-underwriter of a $1.5 billion O’Hare Airport bond issue acknowledged Monday that its founding partners owned not one, but several, slaves during the Civil War era and that, “in all likelihood,” it “profited significantly” from slavery.

“This is a sad part of our heritage. . . We’re deeply apologetic. . . It was a terrible thing. . . There’s no one sitting in the United States in the year 2005, hopefully, who would ever, in a million years, defend the practice,” said Joe Polizzotto, general counsel of Lehman Brothers.


Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), City Council champion for slave reparations, refused to accept either the apology or the discovery that the founding brothers owned more than just one slave, named Martha.

Tillman accused Lehman Brothers of attempting to snow the City Council and demanded that the company be removed from the $1.5 billion bond issue aimed at jump-starting Mayor Daley’s massive O’Hare expansion project.

“They had two years to do their research. . . They’re playing with us,” Tillman said.


Two years ago, Lehman Brothers became the first city contractor to admit past ties to slavery.

The company filed an affidavit stating that the three Lehman brothers who in 1850 founded the firm’s predecessor in Montgomery, Ala., bought a female slave named Martha four years later. Historical records also suggest that the brothers “may have personally owned other slaves,” the company stated. But, the disclosure form stressed, “There is no evidence that these slaves were purchased or used by any predecessor entity of Lehman Brothers.”

In June, the City Council approved the $1.5 billion O’Hare expansion bond issue over Tillman’s objections. After a roll call fell three votes short of passage, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) promised not to sign the agreement until Lehman Brothers appeared before his committee and told the truth. The bond issue then sailed through on a second-chance vote.


On Monday, Lehman Brothers returned to the Finance Committee to admit that after hiring a “history consulting company,” the company discovered that Martha was not alone.

“Specifically, records in Montgomery show that the partnership owned a total of three slaves in 1852, two slaves in 1858, three slaves in 1859, two slaves in 1860, four slaves in 1861 and five slaves in 1864,” Polizzotto said.