Publication Date

October 6, 2022

As recent debates in American history have centered the legacies of slavery and the slave trade, calls for reparations have taken on new urgency. Yet very few studies trace how individual slaving wealth capitalized over generations to the present day. This presidential address focuses on how one Liverpool slave trader orchestrated an elaborate criminal conspiracy that transformed his family’s wealth and status in the late 18th century. The heirs to that legacy now preside over a multinational company generating revenues of £740 million per year, and the family has been largely successful in erasing their forefather’s criminal ties to slaving. Meanwhile, official corporate histories falsely celebrate the family’s abolitionism as foundational to the company’s “ethical” mission. A more obvious target for reparations seemingly would be difficult to find. However, the shape those reparations should take is complicated by African complicity in slaving and wealth building, structural inequalities in contemporary legal institutions, and a startling modern-day connection to the Black Lives Matter movement.

A photo of the Edward Colston statue standing upright combined with a photo of the statue's pedestal covered with Black Lives Matter signs

In 2020, activists toppled the statue of Edward Colston into the Bristol Harbor during protests over the murder of George Floyd. Simon Cobb/Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0; Caitlin Hobbs/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The presidential address will take place on Friday, January 6, 2023, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Grand Ballroom Salon E.

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James H. Sweet
James H. Sweet

University of Wisconsin-Madison