- What was New York Life’s connection to slavery in the 1800s?
New York Life’s predecessor company, Nautilus Insurance Company, sold policies on slaves’ lives between 1846 -1848. It is a history New York Life deeply regrets, and which the company has been open and transparent about for decades.
The company’s own published accounts of the Nautilus policies sold on slaves’ lives appeared as early as 1895 and, in 2001, the company provided the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with the original, 155-year-old company archival records of the insurance policies sold to owners of slaves. According to the Nautilus records, the company insured a total of 520 individuals who were either identified as slaves or from the records appeared to be slaves, and paid claims on 15 of those individuals who died.
- How does your connection compare to other life insurers at the time? Were you the largest player in the industry?
No. Our research indicates that there were at least 60 other companies involved in the business at the time, some of which wrote greater numbers of policies during that period. Nearly all of those companies went out of business and/or do not have records detailing their history.
- How much money did the company make off of this business? Was the company’s early survival based on the policies sold on slaves’ lives, either from a profit perspective, or in building sufficient volume and scale?
No. To say our company was built on slavery is incorrect. The policies Nautilus sold on slaves’ lives were a very small part – less than 5% – of the premiums collected by Nautilus during the short time the policies were sold. Nautilus records indicate that it did not make money from this business.
- What about the fact – from your own history book – that more than a third of the first thousand policies were written on the lives of slaves. Doesn’t that mean that the company was built with the cash flow from these early slave policies?
The policies Nautilus sold on slaves’ lives were a very small part - less than 5% - of the premiums collected by Nautilus during the short time the policies were sold. They were not a significant source of revenue and Nautilus records indicate that it did not make money from this business.
- When did the company discontinue issuing policies on the lives of slaves? What prompted this change in policy?
Nautilus records show that its board of trustees voted to end the practice in April of 1848, more than a dozen years before the Civil War and 18 years before the official end of slavery in the United States with the ratification of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Two policies were sold in 1849 after the trustees vote, possibly due to challenges in communicating the decision nationwide. Nautilus records do not indicate the exact reason for the cessation.
- Did the company condemn slavery at that time or offer a formal apology for its conduct?
It is difficult to ascertain what Nautilus did or said on the issue at that time. What we can comment on is New York Life’s position on these issues. As for an apology, through our words and our conduct spanning many years, we have made clear that we profoundly regret our predecessor company’s association with slavery. We are committed to fostering a greater understanding of slavery in America and supporting the African American community, and our actions reflect that commitment.
From donating our records of these 155 year-old policies to the New York Public Library, to being a founding donor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to sponsoring two PBS series, “Slavery and the Making of America” and “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”, to establishing The New York Life Endowment for Emerging African American Issues at CUNY’s Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, New York Life has worked for years to shine a light on the worst of our nation’s history so it is never repeated. We also dedicate millions of dollars every year to causes and organizations that directly benefit African American recipients.
- The New York Times article indicated that the company would not allow access to its archivist. Is there information regarding the issue that was not shared with the New York Times?
No. Our own published accounts of the Nautilus policies sold on slaves’ lives appeared as early as 1895, and in 2001 we provided the original archival records of these policies to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The reporter closely reviewed those records, as well as all of the relevant Nautilus business records that we have. We are unique in the industry for having preserved these records for over 170 years and making them available for review and analysis.