- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

The first lawsuit seeking reparations on behalf of blacks for slavery in the United States was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against three major corporations.
The complaint cites Aetna Inc., the insurance company; Fleet Bank; and CSX Railroad among 1,000 surviving companies that profited directly or through predecessors from deals involving an estimated 8 million slaves, whose unpaid labors were valued at $1.4 trillion.
"The practice of slavery constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty, African citizenship rights, cultural heritage and it further deprived them of the fruits of their own labor," say the plaintiffs, who seek recognition in class action on behalf of more than 30 million black Americans it says are descended from slaves.
The case was filed on behalf of lead plaintiff Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, 36, who said she went to law school to prepare for this case and obtained help from 60 companies in five years of research.
The lawsuit does not specify how much is sought in damages. Lawyers in the case said letters requesting settlement talks would go out shortly to 12 other companies they did not identify.
"This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves. … We expect those companies to stand up," said Roger S. Wareham, one of the lawyers, who said any payments would be placed in a welfare fund for blacks. He did not say how the lawyers would be compensated.
"This is not about individuals receiving checks in their mailbox," said Mr. Wareham, although others seek individual reparations based on the suffering of their ancestors. It's not clear how such money would be divided, or whether blacks with more slave ancestors than others would get more in a settlement.
The lawsuit filed yesterday contends that Aetna, Fleet and CSX were unjustly enriched by business transactions that were within the law of the time and that some 1,000 other corporations that are not identified also profited from the U.S. slave trade and sometimes helped it continue from 1619 to 1865.
Aetna and CSX both issued statements distancing their companies from "tragic" history and vowed to resist in court any demands for payment. Accusations against Fleet are not new, and the bank has voiced its qualms to employees in the past. But spokeswoman Alison Gibbs said yesterday that Fleet will "respond appropriately" after it receives the lawsuit.
"We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago. These issues in no way reflect Aetna today," Assistant Vice President Fred Laberge said, noting that his company apologized two years ago when Miss Farmer-Paellmann first raised the issue.
CSX spokeswoman Kathleen A. Burns said "courtrooms are the wrong setting" to resolve assertions that slave labor helped build railroads that CSX now owns.
Obstacles facing the plaintiffs include statutes of limitations that long since have expired, the likelihood that Miss Farmer-Paellmann's standing to sue will be contested and the likely defense by all three companies that all such business transactions were legal at the time no matter how wrong or even "immoral" they are regarded today.
Any of those issues could lead to summary dismissal.
An officer of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, who asked not to be identified by name, said the concept of such a lawsuit raised "profound issues at the intersection of civil rights, civil law and the Constitution." She said the average trial lawyer would be unable to analyze the lawsuit's prospects because the idea "comes out from academia and not up from the streets."
Mr. Laberge said he understands that the complaint against Aetna will center on a handful of short-term handwritten life insurance policies for 16 slaves, at premiums of $5 or $10 each for policies that lasted one to three months. Aetna recently delivered copies of those policies and other records to the California Department of Insurance under a new law requiring disclosures of insurance policies issued on the lives of slaves.
The 1956 history of Aetna's first 100 years revealed that "in an unwise moment" the company engaged briefly in selling policies on the lives of slaves and Chinese laborers.
Mr. Laberge said seven Aetna policies are known to exist, covering 16 slaves identified as vaguely as "James, a blacksmith in Virginia." He said there is no record of premiums collected or benefits paid out to slave owners, although the company history relates that fraud by slave owners and "the abnormally high actual death rate" created a "crushing load" on the business. The policies excluded payment for slaves who killed themselves, were lynched or died from their owners' abuse.
CSX holdings include the residue of Virginia's Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, which leased slaves for up to $150 a year, and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, later the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which valued its emancipated slaves at $128,773.
Fleet's corporate family tree traces back to Providence Bank, founded by Rhode Island businessman John Brown, who owned ships in the slave trade. That aspect and the names of other targeted companies were included in USA Today's extensive slavery-reparations project published Feb. 21 when the newspaper named 18 prominent companies with "slavery in their pasts," including Gannett Co., whose 95 newspapers include USA Today.
Gannett, founded in 1906, said it has tried to focus understanding on slavery and racism and said it owned no newspapers before the Civil War but now owns papers that published slave-era ads and those that opposed slavery. "Shareholders of today's Gannett are no more responsible for newspaper advertising or editorials published more than 150 years ago than they deserve 'credit' for the publication of ads or editorials opposing slavery," the company said.
In 2000, Aetna also voiced "deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice" after Miss Farmer-Paellmann first contacted the insurance giant. She said she researched slavery records for five years with assistance from as many as 60 companies, including Aetna, and that she attended law school with the goal of eventually suing for damages as a result of slavery.
Last year, the government warned black taxpayers of a reparations fraud involving flyers and e-mails circulated by con artists attempting to trick blacks into filing federal income tax claims for a promised reparations check.
The Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General said one flyer contended that the U.S. Government would be issuing refunds because of an imaginary "Slave Reparation Act." An estimated 80,000 people fell prey to the hoax in 2001.


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