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Seeking Justice for Slavery's Sins

A class-action suit pursuing reparations from companies began with a woman's personal quest to understand history.

April 22, 2002|LEWIS BEALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Forty acres and a mule. We were supposed to get 40 acres and a mule. It always sounded like a myth to Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a kind of urban legend black people told one another. Like when her grandfather would occasionally complain about some sort of government injustice and invariably end his grumbling by saying " ... and they still owe us our 40 acres and a mule."

Yet Farmer-Paellmann eventually learned that what her grandfather was talking about wasn't folklore. He was referring to an 1865 field order issued by Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman, which granted freed slaves a piece of land and the means to work it--a promise that was broken and has come to symbolize a debt owed to the descendants of slaves by an indifferent government.

Once Farmer-Paellmann learned the truth about the "40 acres and a mule" mantra, she wanted to learn more. Driven by what she calls an "Afrocentric consciousness," Farmer-Paellmann began to research slavery and to learn all she could about the businesses that played a prominent role in the slave trade.

Her work took her to musty state historical archives, where she dug around for insurance policies written on slave lives and other documentation of corporate culpability. The search also took her to law school, where Farmer-Paellmann tailored a curriculum that would help her devise a strategy to get reparations for the descendants of millions of enslaved Africans.

Last month, five years after beginning her research, Farmer-Paellmann's efforts bore fruit. A class-action lawsuit, the first of its kind, was filed in Brooklyn federal court seeking compensation from three American companies that allegedly profited from the slave trade.

The lawsuit singles out FleetBoston Financial Corp., Aetna Inc. and CSX Corp., alleging that they or their predecessor companies profited from slave labor. The lawsuit seeks to link these companies--involved in banking, insurance and transportation--in a conspiracy to deprive Africans of their human rights through enslavement.

It is one of several similar lawsuits to be filed in the coming weeks and months, including at least one to be filed before the end of May in Los Angeles involving an insurance company, a bank and a tobacco firm. And although the lawsuit does not ask for any specific amount in damages, the plaintiffs plan to seek to hold settlement talks with a number of companies, several of which are not named in the Brooklyn suit. Ultimately, the plaintiffs would like to set up a trust fund to be used to address pressing issues in the African American community, such as education and health care.

"The perpetrators of the crimes committed against Africans are still here," says Farmer-Paellmann, who is the lead plaintiff in the suit, and whose research is at the core of its allegations. "They profited from stealing people and labor, torturing and raping women to breed children. Why on earth should they be able to keep profits they made committing those crimes?"

The New York woman's legal action is the latest example of a grass-roots campaign that dates to the 1890s, when an organization called the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Assn. pushed for legislation granting pensions to ex-slaves.

In recent years the issue has been discussed fervently among lawyers, historians and activists and, since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill each year that would establish a national commission to study the issue (the bill has never gotten out of committee). But the concept of slave reparations has especially gained momentum following the awarding of compensation to Holocaust survivors by profiting firms, and, by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

The slave reparations case, says Ed Fagan, one of Farmer-Paellmann's lawyers and a prominent player in the recent Holocaust settlements involving German companies and Swiss banks, "is about companies being held accountable for what they did. They should not be entitled to retain the illegal profit they made." Fagan says the Holocaust settlements amounted to $8 billion to $10 billion in claims owed about 1 million people.

Some see the slave reparations lawsuits as seriously flawed, though. Richard H. Middleton Jr., a specialist in class-action lawsuits and past president of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, says: "There's a huge problem [with the lawsuit] in justification in terms of the public perception of what this lawsuit is about. Because of the long time period that has elapsed, it will be hard to identify proper beneficiaries, and it might be hard for the parties being sued to defend themselves."

Farmer-Paellmann is not worried about how the courts will view the legal issues raised in her lawsuit. And she is no wild-eyed radical filing what she knows is a ridiculous claim solely to make a political point.

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