[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

8296: The New York Times: What America owes to African Americans,France, Spain & Portugal owe to HAITI (fwd)

From: Jean Jean-Pierre <jean@acd-pc.com>

June 4, 2001

Calls for Slavery Restitution Getting Louder


Susana Raab for The New York Times

Randall N. Robinson is a leading advocate of
reparations for slavery,
from the government and from businesses that once
profited from the
slave trade, like the insurance company that took out
advertisement below.

It has been more than a century since Gen. William
Tecumseh Sherman
ordered that the coastlands confiscated in the Civil
War be divided
into 40-acre plots and distributed to thousands of
former slaves.

After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson
rescinded the
order and took back the land that had been distributed.
Since then,
the idea of compensating African-Americans for the sins
of two and a
half centuries of slavery has hovered in the
background, far from
reality. But now the movement for reparations is
gaining steam.

As a political matter, reparations has been a
nonstarter: every year
since 1989, Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat
of Michigan,
has introduced legislation calling for a comprehensive
study of
reparations, and every year the legislation has

But as a social and legal movement, the call for
reparations has
taken on substantial force this year. Black
professionals and
scholars are taking up a cause that used to engage
working-class blacks. And beyond the longstanding
efforts to seek
government restitution, there is a new focus on winning
from corporate targets that once profited from slavery.

The new momentum is apparent on many fronts:

--A California law that took effect this year requires
insurance company licensed in the state to research its
business, and that of its predecessor companies, and
report to the
state whether it ever sold policies insuring slave
owners against the
loss of their slave property, and if so to whom.

--A team of prominent African-American lawyers has
announced plans to
file lawsuits early next year seeking damages from the
government and companies that profited from slavery.
The team is part
of the Reparations Coordinating Committee, led by
Charles Ogletree, a
professor at Harvard Law School, and Randall N.
Robinson, the founder
of TransAfrica, a lobbying group.

--In March, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race
Riots of 1921
recommended that survivors and their descendants be
paid reparations
for the uprising in which thousands of whites stormed a
black neighborhood, destroying homes and businesses and
killing at
least 40 people.

--Aetna formally apologized in March 2000 for having
written policies
for slave owners on the lives of their slaves. Three
months later The
Hartford Courant, which had run a front-page article
about Aetna's
apology, made a front- page apology of its own, for
having run
advertisements for the sale and capture of slaves.

--Advocates of reparations are fighting to make
compensation for
slavery an official theme of the United Nations World
Against Racism in August, and hoping to win a
declaration that
slavery is a crime against humanity for which
reparations should be

--Last month, The Philadelphia Inquirer published two
editorials urging the creation of a national
reparations commission.

The idea of reparations raises tangled questions about
who should pay
the money and who should receive it - and, more
profoundly, about the
relative merits of affirmative action and restitution.

The Reparations Coordinating Committee's litigation is
unlikely to
get into such particulars. The first task, lawyers say,
is to
establish a legal wrong that must be remedied.

"The history of slavery in America has never been fully
addressed in
a public forum," Mr. Ogletree said. "Litigation will
show what
slavery meant, how it was profitable and how the issue
of white
privilege is still with us. Litigation is a place to
start, because
it focuses attention on the issue."

Some blacks still dismiss the reparations movement as a
from the issues that matter. "If the government got the
money from
the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, that'd be great," said
Walter E.
Williams, chairman of the economics department at
George Mason
University. "But the government has to take the money
from citizens,
and there are no citizens alive today who were
responsible for
slavery. The problems that black people face are not
going to be
solved by white people, and they're not going to be
solved by money.
The resources that are going into the fight for
reparations would be
far more valuably spent making sure that black kids
have a credible

Reparations remain a divisive idea, opposed by the vast
majority of
whites but widely supported by African-Americans.
"There is now no
major black organization that does not support
reparations," said Mr.
Robinson, whose book "The Debt: What America Owes to
Blacks" is a
steady seller in black bookstores.

The legal argument, he said, is compelling: "When
participates in a crime against humanity, and benefits
from it, then
that government is under the law obliged to make the
victims whole.
That's recognized as a principle of law."

Certainly, reparations payments have become an
increasingly familiar
concept. The United States government has paid
reparations to
Japanese-Americans interned in World War II, and to
several Indian
tribes. Holocaust survivors who were used as forced
laborers have won
reparations from European countries. Mexican braceros
who worked in
the United States during World War II have filed a
class- action
lawsuit for reparations.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, who as a senior official in the
administration negotiated settlements under which
Holocaust victims
would receive $8 billion in reparations from the
governments of
Germany, France and Austria and from Swiss banks, said
that he viewed
those cases as different from the African-American
claims, because
Holocaust reparations are going largely to surviving
victims, while
slavery reparations would go to descendants generations

"For slavery qua slavery, I think the appropriate
remedy is
affirmative government action in general, rather than
said Mr. Eizenstat, who is now in private life. "And if
100 years
from now the great-great- grandson of a Holocaust
laborer asked for
reparations, I don't think that would be appropriate,
unless there
was some specific property that had been confiscated
that they wanted
to recover."

Those campaigning for reparations say that they are
prepared to prove
that African- Americans today continue to suffer from
the legacy of
slavery - and, after slavery, another century of legal
"We are not raising claims that you should pay us
because you did
something to us 150 years ago," said Adjoa Aiyetoro, a
consultant to the National Coalition of Blacks for
Reparations in
America, which is preparing its own lawsuit against the
government and working with the coordinating committee.
"We are
saying that we are injured today by the vestiges of
slavery, which
took away income and property that was rightfully

Part of the new momentum in the reparations movement
comes from
efforts to win restitution not just from the federal
government, but
also from companies that profited from slavery. "I
started doing
research about the possibility of a lawsuit against the
said Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a lawyer. "But I turned
corporations, after finding how difficult it would be
to win a claim
against the government, given sovereign immunity, the
statute of
limitations, and an opinion by a relatively liberal
court rejecting
the idea. If you can show a company made immoral gains
by profiting
from slavery, you can file an action for unjust

Historians say that slavery was so central to the
economy in the
early days of America that almost every business
benefited from it.
"The entire economy of this country was based on
slavery, North as
well as South," said Eric Foner, a professor of history
at Columbia
University. "New York had a stranglehold on the cotton
trade, which
made up half the total value of U.S. exports in 1850.
Brooks Brothers
supplied a lot of clothing to plantation owners.
manufacturers, everyone felt the economic ripples."

Government benefited, too, often using slaves to build
public works.
Slaves helped build the United States Capitol - and
their owners
received $5 a month for their labor.

Ms. Farmer-Paellmann, who found the documents about
Aetna's slave
policies, is pursuing other companies that profited
from slavery.
Among her discoveries was a 1906 history of the New
York Life
Insurance Company, which explained that "among the
first 1,000
policies issued, 339 were upon the lives of negro
slaves in Maryland
and Virginia."

Spurred by the California legislation, New York Life is
now reviewing
its archives, to find out to what extent the company
may have sold
insurance to slave owners.

Although no lawsuits have been filed, some old-line
companies have
reportedly begun to worry about their exposure. Owen
Pell, a New York
lawyer who represented several companies in
litigation, has spoken informally with several
companies about the
possibility and potential shape of claims relating to
African slavery.

Ultimately, insurance companies may not be the most
defendants. The ripest potential defendants, some
lawyers say, may be
municipal governments, which do not have the same
sovereign immunity
as the federal government, and tobacco companies or
railroads - even
those that declared bankruptcy after the Civil War,
since the old
bankruptcy code did not wipe out any debts or
liabilities that were
not specifically declared.

Often the connection to slavery is mentioned in company
histories: a
history of the Arkwright Manufacturing Company, now
owned by the
Dutch company OcÚ, describes how James DeWolf, a slave
"invested his slaving profits in the textile mills"
operated in Rhode Island.

To be sure, it is a long stretch from a 19th century
slave trader to
a 21st-century Dutch company that makes copying
machines, and OcÚ
officials seemed baffled by any possible connection to
the slave
trade. "This is the first I've heard of it," said Karen
Fitt, a
company spokeswoman.

Still, Ms. Farmer-Paellmann says, companies built on
the profits from
slavery may become strong advocates for reparations
from the
government, as opposed to the private sector.

"My interest in this is to get these corporations, once
they are
aware of their own connections, to be our chief
lobbyists in
Washington for other forms of restitution," she said.
aren't enough."

If the idea of paying reparations for slavery makes
Americans uneasy,
Mr. Ogletree of Harvard said, it is probably partly
because, for most
whites, it is a new idea, based on a history they do
not understand.
"The uneasiness that some express about reparations is
the same
uneasiness that we had about integration, about women's
right to
choose," he said. "We've gained some important
mainstream viability,
but these things take time."