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Apologizes for Slave-Era Ads

July 6, 2000

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HARTFORD, July 5 -- In March, a front-page article in The Hartford Courant reported that Aetna Inc., one of Connecticut's largest companies, had apologized for profiting from slavery by issuing insurance policies on slaves in the 1850's. The next day, The Courant, the state's largest newspaper, ran a second front-page article speculating that Aetna's contrition might prompt many other American companies to apologize "for having reaped profits at the cost of human freedom."

That prediction turned out to be accurate. On Tuesday, after a four-month investigation into its own archives, The Courant ran yet another front-page article, in which it apologized for having published advertisements in its pages for the sale of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In that article, below a banner headline, "A Courant Complicity, an Old Wrong," a spokesman for the newspaper said it was sorry "for any involvement by our predecessors at The Courant in the terrible practice of buying and selling human beings that took place in previous centuries."

Such ads were common in newspapers of the 1700's and early 1800's, when slavery was legal in many states, including Connecticut. But even at a time when many companies are acknowledging past wrongs, The Courant's apology is unusual -- in part because so few of those newspapers still exist.

The Courant, founded in 1764, is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the nation.

Though the article about the ads appeared on Independence Day, when many readers may have been preoccupied with holiday plans, many blacks interviewed in Hartford today reacted positively to news of The Courant's apology.

"I think it makes a big difference," said Aristede Hill, a youth program director at Hartford's Y.M.C.A. "I appreciate it. It should be brought to the forefront."

He said he would find the article, which he had not yet read, and show it to the youths he worked with. "I'll definitely bring it up," said Mr. Hill, 30, of Bloomfield, a Hartford suburb. "It's something to talk about, debate about."

The existence of the slave ads was known by some Courant executives, but no one discussed it, said Lou Golden, the newspaper's vice president and deputy publisher.

But after the Aetna article, editors in the news department began an inquiry into The Courant's history.

And when they presented their findings, everyone agreed an apology was appropriate, Mr. Golden said.

"We hadn't really focused on it, but when it came up, we decided to act on it," he said. "If we had focused on it sooner, we would have apologized sooner."

The Courant is not the first American newspaper to confront its involvement with slavery. The paper, which said it published slave ads from 1765 until at least 1823, is one of many across the nation believed to have routinely printed them.

"It would just have been a natural thing that newspapers would advertise slaves the way they would advertise any other commodity," said David Brion Davis, a Yale University history professor and author of "The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture," noting how deeply rooted slavery was, even in Northern states like Connecticut, which abolished slavery in 1848.

"That tradition in American journalism goes back very early," said Tom Leonard, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "I've seen it in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, even though he was an opponent of slavery."

The New York Times was founded in 1851, after slavery was outlawed in New York State. A spokeswoman for The Times, Catherine Mathis, said the paper did not believe that it had run ads for the sale or capture of slaves.

Other newspapers have published, or are preparing to publish, articles on their complicity in the slave trade.

The forerunner of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, a newspaper called The Daily Picayune, also ran advertisements seeking to sell slaves or find runaways, a fact the paper noted in a long article in 1993, said Jim Amoss, the newspaper's editor.

An editorial at the end of that series of articles included a reference to the newspaper's past practices that read in part: "The newspaper has had a long history of racial intolerance and insensitivity. Like all histories, we carry it with us. We have tried to acknowledge our own failings and, in so doing, to speak more clearly to our readers about the complex subject of race."

The Web site lists runaway-slave ads from newspapers that regularly published them, including The Baltimore Sun. On Sept. 17, 1852, for instance, The Sun ran an ad offering a $100 reward for "A Negro Boy named George Stewart, a slave for life."

Asked about the newspaper's 19th-century practices, William K. Marimow, The Sun's current editor, said: "I think we've shown in the work we do our commitment to human rights and civil rights. What the newspaper did then in my mind was one symptom of an atrocity in America."

He also pointed out that The Sun was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize three years ago for a series on modern slavery in Sudan.

The Courant's idea to look into its connection to slavery originated within the news department, said Jeni Frank, an assistant managing editor. But she and Mr. Golden offered slightly different explanations of how the article came about.

Mr. Golden said a reporter working on the Aetna article was reporting on the follow-up article about other companies, "and one of the sources asked, 'Is The Courant going to apologize,' and the reporter came to us and said, 'Is The Courant going to apologize?' And we said, 'Yes.' "

But Ms. Frank said she thought of investigating The Courant's possible involvement in the slave trade during a news meeting on the day the Aetna story was published.

Publishing the article on a holiday was not meant to lessen its impact, Ms. Frank said. "We were not trying to avoid publicity," she said, "nor were we trying to get publicity."

But the article appears to have made an impression far beyond Connecticut's borders. Mr. Golden spent most of today on the telephone, fielding calls from reporters around the country. Ms. Frank said the newspaper had received about a dozen calls, mostly from television and radio stations. "I've gotten calls from Seattle, from MSNBC," she said.

Roger Vann, the president of the Connecticut chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Golden and Ms. Frank said they would be encouraged if other newspapers decided to explore their own involvement in publishing slave ads. "I think it would be a good thing," Mr. Golden said. "I think that corporations and organizations all bear responsibility for what their ancestors and forefathers did."

A Courant Complicity, An Old Wrong

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