On February 26 for the first time a judge will make substantive and procedural rulings on a probable eight lawsuits that are at the cutting edge of the movement to compensate African-Americans who still suffer from the effects of slavery and institutionalized racism. There are at least thirteen plaintiffs, all descendants of slaves. Thousands more could be added. One of the plaintiffs is 71-year-old Hannah Hurdle-Toomey. Her father (who was 87 at the time of her birth, in 1932) was born into slavery on a North Carolina plantation in 1845 and sold at auction when he was 8. “We literally built this country,” says Hurdle-Toomey. “It’s not just a question of money. We want recognition–something other than Black History Month.” Diane Sammons, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who specializes in human rights law, called the court action “the beginning of a process that will probably wind up in the Supreme Court and which eventually could be as significant for African-Americans as Brown v. Board of Education.”
The federal class-action lawsuits–the first three were filed about a year ago–are against companies on behalf of potentially all slave descendants. The attorneys are claiming “unjust enrichment” and a breach of human rights laws. They are not asking for payments to the plaintiffs. Instead they seek corporate accountability for profits made from slavery, unspecified damages and the establishment of a fund for the healthcare, housing, education and economic development needs of African-Americans. They also want a full investigation of the financial underpinnings of slavery. A principal motivation of the reparations campaign and of the lawsuits is the lingering sense that America has never fully examined the economic powers behind slavery.
On the other side of the lawsuits are seventeen powerful corporations. They include financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase and FleetBoston; insurance companies (e.g., Aetna and New York Life); railroads (Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and CSX); tobacco companies (R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson); and a textile manufacturer (WestPoint Stevens). The lawsuits claim that predecessors of the financial institutions loaned money to slaveowners and handled the monetary transactions of slavery; that insurance companies insured slaves and slave ships; that railroads forced slaves to build and run rail lines (a railroad rulebook prescribes thirty-nine lashes for recalcitrant slaves); that tobacco companies used slave labor in the tobacco fields; and that textile companies profited from cotton cultivated by slaves and sold the coarse garments slaves were forced to wear.
The number of corporations that benefited from slavery and that could be sued may reach more than a hundred, according to Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a lawyer who is a plaintiff and who almost single-handedly has uncovered the information linking corporations to slavery. “These companies have become multibillion-dollar interests in large part due to the practice of stealing people and stealing their labor,” she said. “Justice requires that they atone for these wrongs by paying restitution.” (Prior to her recent research, the reparations movement was focused almost solely on restitution by the government.) Additional corporations could include utility companies that used slaves to lay gas lines beneath Southern cities like New Orleans and mining companies that forced slaves to dig for coal, according to USA Today reporter James Cox, who has researched the subject extensively. Media companies like Gannett, Knight Ridder and the Tribune Company have been linked to slavery because their predecessors published ads for runaway slaves. Nor are universities exempt. Advocates are discussing whether schools including Harvard, Brown, Yale and the University of Virginia should be sued because many of their original benefactors were allegedly wealthy slaveowners.
Top Bush Administration officials might be asked to testify as the lawsuits progress. William Donaldson, the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was CEO and chairman of defendant Aetna when the company issued a public apology for writing life insurance policies on the lives of slaves, and John Snow, the new Treasury Secretary, is the former chairman of defendant CSX.