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Book on slavery's wealth touches prominent Pittsburgh philanthropists

aerial view of industrial plant
Senator John Heinz History Center
In an undated 20th-century photo, Pittsburgh Coke and Chemical occupies Neville Island. The company was then owned by the Hillman family, whose ancestors a new book traces to 19th-century enslavers.

A new book about the riches earned from American slavery and passed down through generations traces how the ancestors of a prominent Pittsburgh family were involved in this vast historical wrong.

“The Stolen Wealth of Slavery: A Case for Reparations,” by journalist David Montero, tells the story of several modern-day corporations founded on profits from slavery. The companies include Citibank, Bank of America and investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.

Montero said his goal is to show that most of the wealth generated by slavery traveled from the South to the North, to Wall Street banks and other enterprises, on whose profits the growing nation was built. The book continues the ongoing national conversation about reparations and the legacy of slavery.

The Pittsburgh family Montero highlights is the Hillmans, known here for generations largely through the philanthropy of the 18 foundations under the umbrella of the Hillman Family Foundations.

In 2022, the most recent year for which records are available, the foundations had assets of $1.8 billion and distributed about $100 million in grants. The vast majority were granted in Pittsburgh, in areas including education, health care, affordable housing and the arts. Their name is on the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, where they’ve been major donors for decades, and Shadyside’s UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Also that year, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation was one of two initial major donors to The Andy Warhol Museum’s ambitious Pop District initiative, pledging $10 million over four years. (Full disclosure: WESA’s parent company, Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, has received funding from Hillman charities, most recently for WESA’s sister station WYEP.)

A grey, four story brutalist library building with tall, narrow windows behind a wall with a blue sign reading "University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library."
Gene J. Puskar
The University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library is among the Pittsburgh landmarks named for members of the Hillman family.

“The Hillman family, to me, really epitomizes this dynamic, this commercial evolution that has propelled the evolution of the country and of capitalism and of individual and institutional wealth in America,” said Montero, a former producer for PBS' Frontline who wrote his book while living in Pittsburgh.

Montero argues that such companies should acknowledge the sources of their wealth, apologize for any wrongdoing, and make amends by funding aid for Black communities and individuals.

In a statement from spokesperson Kelley Denny, the Hillman Family Foundations responded:

“Without question, slavery was a tragic part of American history. Regrettably, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ancestors of the Hillman family were among the hundreds of thousands of people whose businesses relied on the labor of enslaved people."

“For generations, the Hillman family and their foundations have had a long enduring commitment to supporting our diverse community through philanthropic giving and civic engagement. Since the 1950s, they have had a direct role in supporting many organizations and causes that benefit Black communities. This commitment is borne from a sense of trust, friendship, and mutual respect. They are proud of their contributions and relationships and plan to build on both for generations to come.”

The Hillman Family Foundations have indeed supported many projects in majority-Black neighborhoods. Recent gifts benefited projects including a youth arts program in the Hill District, an academic and sports center in Larimer, and construction of a private pre-school in Homewood. The foundations were also key backers of the big permanent exhibit on playwright August Wilson at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. And they are longtime supporters of the Poise Foundation, which works to empower Pittsburgh’s Black community.

“A huge slave-labor force”

“The Stolen Wealth of Slavery” offers a big-picture look at how slavery underpinned the American economy. It focuses on the early 1800s, when cotton became the nation’s biggest export crop, thanks to the slave labor that grew, picked and processed it.

Montero contends in the book that the primary beneficiaries of the slave economy were not Southern plantation owners — most of whom, he writes, were in debt. Rather, the profits accrued mainly to Northern banks and insurance firms which lent money to those plantation owners, and then invested that money in other industries in the rapidly growing nation, from coal fields to railroads. Many of the loans used the bodies of enslaved people as collateral.

Montero said this dynamic was widely recognized at the time, for instance in abolitionist newspapers. His analysis aligns with much present-day scholarship about American history.

“The United States became a global economic superpower based on the wealth of enslaved people at the hands of corporate and corporate-lookalike entities,” said Cornell William Brooks, a professor of the practice of social justice and public leadership at Harvard University.

The Hillmans, Montero writes, were not directly involved in the cotton trade. Rather, their fortune was built on iron-forging in the South, a lesser-known but substantial industry.

Montero traces the Hillmans’ industrial roots to the 1820s, when a New Jersey native named Daniel Hillman started an iron-forging business in Alabama with seed money from an enslaver and ran it with Black slave labor. Montero writes that Hillman’s son, Daniel Hillman Jr., apprenticed with his father and went on to exploit a “network of deep-pocketed enslavers” to build an iron empire in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Hillman Jr. married into an enslaving family, the Marables, and acquired slave labor of his own — as many as 270 human beings, writes Montero, who drew on census data, court documents and military records. Montero calls Hillman’s holdings “a huge industrial and slave labor force.”

That Daniel Hillman Jr. owned slaves has been publicly noted for decades, often in regional publications.

J. Hartwell Hillman
Internet Archive
J. Hartwell Hillman, here depicted in 1914's Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania, moved the Hillman family north to Pittsburgh in the 1880s.

In “The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama,” a book published in 1910 by the Birmingham, Ala., Chamber of Commerce, author Ethel Armes writes of one set of ironworks: “Daniel Hillman was in charge of the celebrated mills, and joint owner, with his brothers, of the Fulton and Empire blast furnaces. He owned thousands of acres of mineral lands and more slaves than any other iron-master in Kentucky.”

“When President Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation more than 300 negroes belonging to D. Hillman were given their freedom,” the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal newspaper reported in an Aug. 20, 1911, article about the remnants of old ironworks being transported to Louisville.

And the late historian William Kauffman Scarborough noted Hillman in his 2006 book “Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South,” published by Louisiana State University Press.

Hillman Jr.’s son J. Hartwell Hillman, born on the family’s Tennessee plantation in 1841, relocated to Pittsburgh in the 1880s. But this history of enslavement has not been widely discussed in Pittsburgh — where the younger Hillman launched businesses including the Hillman Coal and Coke Company (later Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical) and J.H. Hillman & Sons.

Decades of philanthropy

The family’s philanthropies date to the 1950s and ’60s. One of J. Hartwell Hillman’s sons, John Hartwell Hillman, Jr., joined three of his children to create four foundations, including the Hillman Foundation. One of those children was Henry L. Hillman, who starting in the 1980s created 14 more foundations in the names of his wife, Elsie Hillman, his children and grandchildren.

Henry L. Hillman is credited with growing the family’s wealth greatly. In 1959, he bought his siblings out and began diversifying beyond heavy industry. He is considered a pioneer in private equity. When he died, in 2017, a billionaire, he left about $800 million to the family’s philanthropies.

Elsie Hillman was a figure in national Republican politics and a familiar public presence in Pittsburgh until her death in 2015. Otherwise, the Hillmans have generally kept out of the spotlight. But while some family members no longer live in Pittsburgh, others remain part of civic life here. Lea Simonds, the daughter of Henry and Elsie Hillman, is the board chair of the Hillman Family Foundations. She is also a life trustee of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and on the boards of groups including City of Asylum.

The Hillmans’ impact on Pittsburgh is indelible. But, as Montero contended, “They only became the family that they did because their patriarch enslaved Black people at a rate seldom seen in the history of the country.”

Montero notes that educational institutions such as Georgetown and Brown universities have acknowledged they benefited from slavery. So have some American corporations. A few of these entities have even committed to making financial amends to the Black community. Montero argues the Hillmans should do the same.

“It’s the most basic form of transparency to say, ‘Yes, this is where our wealth came from, and we acknowledge that. And we would like to address it through X, Y, and Z,’” he said. “To me, that would send a really powerful message about what the Hillman family stands for.”

Montero said while working on his book, he sent multiple messages to the Hillman Family Foundation and to individual Hillman philanthropies seeking comment, but received no response.

Apprised of the statement the Hillmans issued to WESA, in which they wrote, “Regrettably, … ancestors of the Hillman family were among the hundreds of thousands of people whose businesses relied on the labor of enslaved people,” Montero called it inadequate.

“There’s really no apology,” he said. “It’s a diluted sense of contrition if you can even call it that.”

“They’re not even saying we enslaved people,” he added. “They’re saying, ‘We relied on enslaved labor.’ No, Daniel Hillman Jr. consciously bought and enslaved 255 and maybe as many as 270 black people. … The passive language used there is telling.”

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Profits went north

Montero is a freelance journalist and producer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation and Harvard Business Review. His first book was “Kickback: Exposing the Global Corporate Bribery Network.”

He began researching “The Stolen Wealth of Slavery” a few years ago, after learning that the British insurance giant Lloyd’s of London had acknowledged its own roots insuring ships in the slave trade.

“They were just sitting on these records,” he said. “And so that made me start to think, well, what other large financial institutions have records showing their involvement in enslavement that are not also talking about it?”

“The more I looked,” he added, “the more I realized that the profits were pointing me towards the north and towards corporations, and specifically towards the banks of Wall Street.”

In the early 1800s, the United States was still a new country. But it was experiencing an explosive growth in wealth fueled primarily by cotton. The companies that profited include such names as Lehman Brothers, Bank of America and CitiBank. The latter was founded in 1812 by 14 men, nine of whom had owned slaves themselves, Montero learned.

Flowing North, the wealth of slavery was invested in things such as railroads and coal fields. That and the passage of time effectively “laundered” the money, distancing it from its roots in slavery, Montero writes.

The idea that America was built on stolen labor and stolen land is by now a familiar one. But Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, one of the pioneers of the contemporary reparations movement whom Montero profiles in his book, said Montero has illuminated the individual actors in a new way — people such as Daniel Hillman, Brown Brothers co-founder James Brown, and early City Bank director Benjamin Bailey.

“He points out the specific parties,” said Farmer-Paellmann, a Chicago-based lawyer and activist who in 2002 jump-started a reparations movement when she sued FleetBoston Financial (the predecessor to Providence Bank), Aetna, Inc., and railroad company CSX for reparations.

“How we act as citizens”

In national opinion surveys, typically fewer than half of all respondents say they support reparations for slavery. However, a majority of Black respondents do favor reparations.

Many opponents of reparations echo the words of then-U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — whose ancestors owned slaves — at a 2019 press conference.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for [which] none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” said McConnell, who added that it would even be difficult to know exactly whom to compensate.

Reparations proponents reject the argument that slavery was too long ago, contending that its harms are ongoing. Ownership of other humans might have been outlawed by the 13th Amendment, but systemic oppression lived on in the convict-leasing system (which was enabled by that same amendment), in Jim Crow laws, discriminatory housing laws, and more. The inequality persists, they say, in everything from huge racial gaps in household wealth to big racial disparities in health outcomes.

“The same folks who denied the people an opportunity for reparations when those formerly enslaved were alive cannot then say it's too late,” said William Cornell Brooks, the Harvard professor and a former president of the NAACP.

Perhaps the earliest effort at reparations for slavery was Gen. William T. Sherman’s famous order — issued while the Civil War was still in progress — granting what was later termed “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved people. But those reparations were never bestowed.

Most people think of any potential reparations as a federal government responsibility; in “The Stolen Wealth of Slavery,” Montero cites one scholar’s estimate that adequate reparations would cost $14 trillion, a sum only the federal government could conceivably pay. And the U.S. government has paid reparations before, notably to survivors of the nation’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Some state and municipal governments have taken the first steps toward reparations. In 2019, Evanston, Ill., became the first city to issue slavery reparations, in the form of housing grants to a small number of Black residents. (The program has since been expanded.)

And just this year, California legislators introduced the nation’s first state-level reparations bill, though one that excludes cash payments.

Some colleges, universities and religious institutions have also acknowledged their historic ties to slavery. In 2006, Brown University released a report documenting how members of its namesake family participated in the slave trade and owned slaves themselves.

Georgetown University followed some years later; in 1838, an inquiry found, the Jesuits sold 272 slaves sold to fund the school’s expansion. In 2022, Harvard, in acknowledging its own historic ties to slavery, announced it was setting aside $100 million for an endowment fund for reparations. And in 2023, the Church of England announced it was creating a reparations fund of 100 million pounds; in March, the Church’s advisory panel recommended a figure 10 times higher.

Some corporations have also admitted their role. In 2005, JPMorgan Chase became the first U.S. corporation to acknowledge that its predecessor institutions owned slaves; the $54 billion company then earmarked $5 million to pay college tuition for Black students from Louisiana. Last year, Lloyd’s of London said it would invest nearly $50 million in regions affected by the transatlantic slave trade.

In recent years, more corporations have acknowledged slavery’s pivotal role in their history, including Lehman Brothers and Brown Brothers Harriman. But Montero said JPMorgan Chase remains the only U.S. firm to pay reparations.

Farmer-Paellmann’s 2002 reparations suit against FleetBoston, Aetna and CSX failed. Montero concludes U.S. law is not conducive to forcing companies to pay reparations.

But Harvard’s Brown argues legal responsibility for slavery is not the issue.

“Responsibility cannot be defined within the four corners of a legal complaint,” said Harvard’s Brown. “That responsibility has to be defined in terms of historical responsibility, moral responsibility and, I would argue, an evolving understanding of what the social contract entails, not merely how we act as citizens with respect to the present, but how we act as citizens with respect to the past, present and the future. And that means coming to grips with what these companies have done.”

Any corporate reparations will likely have to be voluntary. But Farmer-Paellmann contends reparations are not charity.

“It's really for a debt to be paid, and just understanding that is part of the healing process and acknowledging that you're paying a debt is part of the reconciliation process,” she said.

“To me, the moral duty of corporations to acknowledge this history first and foremost is huge and foundational,” said Montero. Of the Hillman family specifically, he added that he believes they should invest in Black communities more than they already have.

“[And] set aside ways where their wealth can specifically address structural racism, systemic racism," he said. "I think that they should be pioneers in helping the United States figure out how to repair the wounds of slavery.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: