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Slave's Sons Seek to Heal Wounds With Reparations

September 08, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The physical wounds healed long ago. More than 140 years have passed since Andrew Jackson Hurdle first felt the slave master's lash.

Hurdle died in 1935 at age 89, the father of 25 children. Now his last surviving sons say it is time to heal the soul of slavery's offspring.

The two elderly brothers from California last week joined other descendants of black slaves to file lawsuits demanding that U.S. corporations repay profits reaped long ago from the labor of their ancestors.

Timothy Hurdle is 83, living in San Francisco. His younger brother Chester, 75, lives in Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb.

In the name of their father, the men hope to muster an apology and financial restitution from modern American corporations with long-forgotten roots in the slave trade.

In the name of the children, they hope to help ensure a better future for African American youths they believe have inherited the sociological ills of slavery.

"I don't want a penny out of anything," said Chester, a plain-spoken man who had a long career in the Air Force and as a manager in the Weinstock's department store chain.

"What I'd like to see is something done to help the future generations of our race," he added.

So the Hurdle brothers, well into retirement, have become activists in the reparations movement, which has picked up momentum in recent years. It has also collected a growing line of critics, who call it unfair for the offspring of slaves to ask for repayment from the corporate descendants of companies that profited from slavery.

The thrust of the litigation is that the companies are guilty of conspiracy, human rights violations and unjust enrichment from slavery. The lawsuits demand access to corporate records to determine how much money was made from slavery.

Among those being sued are railroads and tobacco firms, textile makers and insurers. No damage figure is named, but by some estimates, the unpaid wages of slavery plus interest would amount to $1.4 trillion today.

Though their lawsuit may be a longshot, the Hurdles hope to reap enough compensation from corporate America to endow a massive trust fund to help poor young African Americans with education, housing and other needs.

As they and other reparation advocates see it, many of the ills suffered by black Americans for the last century--poverty, family disintegration, a burgeoning incarceration rate--are rooted in nearly 250 years of bondage on American soil.

"For more than two centuries, our ancestors were abused psychologically, physically, sexually, economically," said Barbara Ratliff, the brothers' Los Angeles-based attorney. "When people say 'Get over it,' they ignore that for many it is not something you can just get over. Some of the conduct is transferred generation to generation."

'Learned Helplessness'

Ratliff calls this "learned helplessness," and says it still shadows the lives of many African American families. "A lot of black people have been destroyed in the soul and psyche," she said. "There needs to be a rebuilding of that." Timothy and Chester Hurdle are exceptions, Ratliff said, despite their standing as the direct offspring of a slave, a rarity in 21st century America.

Like all the children of Andrew Hurdle, they have forged good careers, volunteered for worthy causes and raised families.

With no uncertain pride, the two brothers trace their success to the quality of character demonstrated by their father.

Andrew Hurdle was born into slavery in 1845. His first 10 years were spent on a North Carolina plantation. He was auctioned off with several brothers and sisters to a farm in Texas. Designated a house servant, he avoided the worst of the abuse.

But when he was 16, with the Civil War erupting, a new plantation manager arrived, and Andrew got his first whipping, his sons say. He became a runaway, joining a Union regiment. For the remainder of the war, Hurdle tended their horses.

At 20 he returned to Texas and married his childhood sweetheart. They had 17 children, but she later died. Then, in 1917, he married a young woman four decades his junior. They produced eight more children, including Timothy, Chester and their sole surviving sibling, Hannah Hurdle-Toomey, a minister in Illinois.

Their father wore many hats: as a minister, farmer and manager of a sorghum syrup mill. He opened one of Texas' first black schools of higher education: Northeast Texas Christian Theological and Industrial College.

Timothy Hurdle, who for years worked with poor black teenagers as a Boy Scout volunteer, says he hopes a victory in the reparations battle can help bring alive his father's dream of better educating African American youths.

"I can see where a lot of children could be helped," he said. "We sure hope something will come of all this."

But the odds may be against them, judging from the reparation movement's track record.

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