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.
Most of the corporations refused comment on the lawsuits. But their statements suggest a long legal battle. For instance, a spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase said that after the appearance of an earlier article [see Friedman, “Chase’s Historical Ledger,” October 9, 2000] his company undertook “an extensive review of its internal archives and public records with the help of an archival expert to look for any evidence or proof of the allegations. We found nothing to indicate any such transactions took place. Consequently, we feel the allegations are without merit.” A Norfolk Southern Railway spokesman said: “We don’t think it’s right to use the courts 140 years after abolition to attribute the wrongs of slavery to modern day people and businesses. We will try to defend our employees, customers, and shareholders.”
A Union Pacific spokesman said, “What happened 150 years ago under different social circumstances, morality, and law has no connection to today’s Union Pacific.” On the insurance front, “Our archival records show that our predecessor company, Nautilus Insurance Company, wrote policies on the lives of slaves in 1846 and 1847. The trustees of Nautilus properly voted to end the practice in 1848,” said a spokesman for the New York Life Insurance Company. “We fully expect to prevail in the courts.”
Two of the biggest legal hurdles faced by those arguing for reparations are whether the plaintiffs have the legal standing to sue and whether the statute of limitations has expired. They argue that the slave descendants have standing, that slavery, as a crime against humanity, has no statute of limitations and, in any case, that there are exceptions to the statute. Bolstering their contentions are Holocaust-related cases in which corporations contributed to reparations funds for Nazi-era slave labor. (One of the lawyers for the plaintiffs represented victims in some of those cases.)
The judge who will hear the consolidated cases is Charles Norgle Sr. of US District Court, Northern Illinois. Appointed by President Reagan, he is considered by Illinois civil rights attorneys to be one of the most conservative judges on the court.
While the federal lawsuits have moved forward, state and local initiatives have been passed, including a California law in 2000, sponsored by former State Senator Tom Hayden, that requires insurance companies to divulge information they have pertaining to slavery. Recently, a law passed by the Chicago City Council took effect requiring all companies that do business with the city to disclose involvement in or profits from slavery. “This is about setting American history straight,” said Robin Brown, an aide to Alderman Dorothy Tillman, sponsor of the bill. “This country can’t heal until it faces what it did to slaves and African-Americans.”
The lawsuits that will be heard in Judge Norgle’s court open a new chapter in African-American history. But whether they lead to corporate accountability, compensation and a thorough investigation of slavery may not be known until higher courts decide.