- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Two black women yesterday filed a federal lawsuit in Texas seeking financial compensation from more than 100 U.S. corporations for their roles in the domestic slave trade.

The case accuses the corporations of profiting by their involvement in the slave trade more than 125 years ago in Texas, and also seeks and the appointment of a committee to study racial reconciliation.

Named as defendants are Fortune 500 financial-services firm J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., textiles company WestPoint Stevens Inc., Union Pacific Railroad and 100 unidentified corporations and companies.

"We are not seeking payments in this case but instead are looking for restitution that can be placed in a trust fund and a panel put in place," said Gary Bledsoe, an Austin lawyer representing the plaintiffs Julie Mae Wyatt Kerwin, 99, the daughter of slaves, and retired Dallas schoolteacher Ina Hurdle Daniels McGee, 69, the granddaughter of slaves.

The desired panel would allocate money won in the lawsuit for services in the black community, including education funding, said Mr. Bledsoe, who also is head of the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The panel also would oversee a program to promote racial reconciliation and "to investigate the truth about slavery and the wounds that continue to exist," Mr. Bledsoe said.

The lawsuit says J.P. Morgan Chase aided slavery by selling insurance policies on slave labor, while WestPoint Stevens made slave clothing from rough cotton.

Union Pacific, the lawsuit contends, profited from slavery by transporting cotton for those clothes.

"We would like to stress that 150 years ago, America operated under quite different social circumstances and law," said John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific.

"These plaintiffs are apparently thinking that some predecessor companies, through mergers and acquisitions, became Union Pacific," he said. "But we have no connection either legally or morally to what was done 150 years ago under previous owners of those companies."

Representatives for J.P. Morgan Chase and WestPoint Stevens did not return calls.

The lawsuit was filed in Galveston, a former slave port chosen symbolically since the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in Texas there.

Previous lawsuits aimed at participants in the slave trade have not won restitution, although a lawsuit two years ago against Aetna Corp. elicited an apology from the company.

The lawsuit filed yesterday is similar to those filed in California and New York last year. All seek damages from companies that profited from slavery, including insurance companies, transportation firms and, in New York, a bank founded by a slave trader.

They also name numerous "John Doe" defendants, whose identities are not currently known.

"This suit is based on those in California," Mr. Bledsoe said. "But we are stressing reconciliation and those were more financial, which seems to be an issue that is much more controversial. The bigger issue now is how to heal this nation."

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