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April 18, 2002
Federal Lawsuit Seeks Slave Reparations from Three Companies
    by William Baue

African-American attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit against three companies that allegedly profited from slavery, either directly or through acquired companies.


Late last month, African-American attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed a class-action lawsuit in a Brooklyn federal court seeking reparation of profits gained through slavery by three prominent U.S. companies. The 21-page lawsuit charged Hartford-based insurer Aetna Inc. (ticker: AET), Virginia-based railway company CSX Corp. (CSX), and FleetBoston Financial Corp. (FBF) with specific economic enrichment from slavery. The lawsuit represents a new tactic in the reparations movement, which in the past sought compensation from state and federal governments, by refocusing responsibility on corporate America.

Ms. Farmer-Paellmann first identified corporate ties to slavery while researching her family’s genealogy through old insurance policies. Prior to 1865, many companies insured against the loss of slave labor. Ms. Farmer-Paellmann researched further, documenting many companies’ ties to slavery. She earned her law degree with the specific purpose of litigating slave reparations.

In early 2000, Ms. Farmer-Paellmann approached Aetna with evidence of policies issued to slaveowners insuring the loss of lives of human chattel, and she requested both an apology and economic restitution. Aetna immediately issued the former.

“[W]e express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice,” stated Aetna in a March 2000 press release, referring to the insuring of slave lives. “We believe that any policy decisions made in the distant past are today more than outweighed by our record of diversity and support of fairness and equality for all people. We have concluded that, beyond our apology, no further actions are required,” the statement continued.

The apology was unprecedented, as few corporations have gone on record acknowledging and expressing sorrow for their role in slavery. But reparations activists believe in the necessity of more concrete gestures. Slavery as an economic institution diverted wealth from those whose work generated it, predominantly slaves of African descent, to those who created the unjust sociopolitical structure, predominantly whites.

CSX similarly expressed regret over the history of slavery, but stated that the courtroom was not the right place to redress wrongs committed more than a century ago. Further complicating the issue in this instance is the fact that CSX was founded in 1980, and is being held accountable for the actions of companies that it acquired. FleetBoston has likewise inherited responsibility for the actions of its predecessor, Providence Bank, which was founded by a Rhode Island businessman named John Brown who capitalized substantially on the slave trade.

These three companies, and hundreds of others that have been documented as profiting from slavery, hold that responsibility for events of the distant past, however unfortunate, cannot be borne by present-day employees and shareowners. The law may support them, in that slavery was a legal institution at the time the charges took place, and furthermore, the statute of limitations has long since expired.

The reparations movement does not view the legacy of slavery as sealed in the past, but rather as a link to present-day racial inequalities disparities in wealth distribution. While it would be impossible to redistribute all the wealth diverted from black slaves to white society, reparations activists believe that documented instances of unjust enrichment should be repaid. The suit names actual descendents of slaves as defendants, but attorneys believe that the symbolic gesture of reparations will benefit African American society in general, aiding in a more complete healing from slavery’s wounds

Both CSX and Aetna point to their actions of the present and near past, which have contributed to creating what the suit seeks--a more equitable and diverse workplace and society. Over the past two decades, Aetna has invested more than $36.5 million in African American communities, supporting education/leadership development, health, community partnerships, economic development and minority-owned businesses.

This lawsuit may represent the tip of the iceberg. The Reparations Coordinating Committee, which includes such prominent African Americans as Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, scholar Cornel West, and trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran, promises to file lawsuits against as many as 60 additional companies.

 

 
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