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Sunday, February 24, 2008


What shall we do say you?

So far, the reparations legal team has publicly identified five companies it says have slave ties: insurers Aetna, New York Life and AIG and financial giants J.P. Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank and FleetBoston Financial Group.

Investment banks Brown Bros. Harriman and Lehman Bros.

Railroads Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific and Canadian National.

Textile maker WestPoint Stevens.

Newspaper publishers Knight Ridder, Tribune, Media General, Advance Publications, E.W. Scripps and Gannett, parent and publisher of USA TODAY.

The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, part of CSX today, paid slave owners $30 to $150 apiece to rent slaves for a year.
Price in 1850: $150
In today's dollars: $3,379

The Mobile & Girard, now part of Norfolk Southern, offered slaveholders $180 apiece for slaves they would rent to the railroad for one year.
1856: $180
Today: $3,737

The Central of Georgia, a Norfolk Southern line today, valued its slaves at $31,303.
1859: $31,303
Today: $663,033

The Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, today part of CSX, placed a value of $128,773 on the slaves it lost as a result of emancipation at the conclusion of the Civil War.
1865: $128,773
Today: $1.4 million

The Mobile & Ohio, now part of Canadian National, valued slaves lost to the war and emancipation at $199,691.
1865: $199,691
Today: $2.2 million

Sources: Economic History Services, USA TODAY research

The list of corporations tied to slavery is likely to grow. Eventually, it could include energy companies that once used slaves to lay oil lines beneath Southern cities, mining companies whose slaves dug for coal and salt, tobacco marketers that relied on slaves to cultivate and cure tobacco.

Slavery's long shadow also could fall over some of Europe's oldest financial houses, which were leading financiers of the antebellum cotton trade.

Lloyd's of London, the giant insurance marketplace, could become a target because member brokerages are believed to have insured ships that brought slaves from Africa to the USA and cotton from the South to mills in New England and Britain.

The original benefactors of many of the country's top universities — Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton and the University of Virginia, among them — were wealthy slave owners. Lawyers on the reparations team say universities also will be sued.

USA TODAY contacted all the companies named in this article. Some acknowledged the evidence, others disputed it. Many declined comment. Of those that did comment, virtually all said the current company isn't liable for what happened before the Civil War.

Behind the new legal thrust is the Reparations Coordinating Committee, headed by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and author-activist Randall Robinson. The team includes heavyweight trial lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Dennis Sweet, and scholars such as Harvard's Cornel West, Georgetown's Richard America and Columbia's Manning Marable.

"Once the record is fleshed out and made fully available to the American people, I think companies will feel some obligation" to settle, Robinson says. "Regret's not good enough. Aetna made money, derivatively at least, from the business of slavery. ... Aetna has to answer for that."

The legal obstacles are daunting. Slaves and their masters are dead. Company records, though sometimes damning, are seldom complete. Damages may be impossible to calculate. Most important, no company accused of profiting from slavery was breaking U.S. law at the time: Slavery was not a crime.

"We've never seen a case where someone who died hundreds of years ago can have a simple, common-law tort revived. The law wasn't designed for this," says Anthony Sebok, a tort expert at Brooklyn Law School.

Statutes of limitations on torts, or injury claims, typically last no longer than two or three years and have been extended in rare exceptions to only 30 years. Before broadening a tort case to a class-action lawsuit, reparations advocates must find the descendant of a slave damaged by one of the defendants. Then they must decide who qualifies as a slave descendant and who, in essence, is black.

The reparations team could choose instead to sue for restitution, arguing that companies were "unjustly enriched" from their use of uncompensated labor. Those cases often hinge on whether plaintiffs can give a clear, precise accounting of what was wrongfully taken from them and what they produced. That's easy when someone wants restitution for a lost object, such as a building. But how do you separate the output of slaves from that of other workers on, for example, a railroad?

Earlier reparations cases — targeting the government — have been dead ends. The group wants to avoid a repeat of Cato v. United States, a $100 million reparations case brought against the federal government in 1995. A sympathetic U.S. Appeals Court in San Francisco dismissed the case after saying it could not find a legal basis for it. The panel said descendants of slaves must go to Congress, not the courts, to get redress for crimes against their ancestors.

That's not to say there is no precedent for reparations. Since 1995, the state of Florida has paid about $2 million in reparations to the victims of a 1923 race riot in the black settlement of Rosewood.

Ultimately, the court of public opinion could be the one that matters most. That much was clear to the German, Austrian, Swiss and French companies sued by Holocaust survivors and other Europeans victimized by the Nazis.

The Holocaust cases, filed by the dozens between 1996 and 2000, were weak on the law and almost certain to be dismissed by U.S. courts. But they were corrosive to the reputations of defendant companies as long as they could linger on court dockets. The companies have settled for more than $8 billion, at the urging of the U.S. government, which mediated.

Owen Pell, a lawyer at White & Case who represented Chase Manhattan against accusations it illegally blocked accounts held by Jews in wartime France, says dozens of U.S. companies have quietly begun searching their archives in anticipation that they could be named in slavery lawsuits.

Public relations damage

The reparations movement can't win in court, Pell insists. "But companies have learned you don't judge a lawsuit by its merits. You judge it by the potential public relations damage. Corporate America is following this issue. They understand how nasty it could get if someone comes in and says you have blood on your hands."

It shouldn't come to that, says Willie Gary, a reparations team member. He says companies tied to slavery should step forward and make amends by putting money into African-American scholarships and education. "Based on what America stands for and has stood for, it's the right thing to do. There's an opportunity to make a wrong right," he says. "This should be a negotiated matter. We shouldn't be in litigation for 20 years."

Black and white Americans are sharply divided on the issue, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll shows. Big majorities of African-Americans believe companies that profited from slavery should apologize, make cash payments to descendants of slaves and set up scholarship funds for blacks. About a third of whites believe apologies and scholarships are a good idea; only 11% of whites favor cash payments to slaves' descendants.

Either way, reparations activists are preparing for a fight. Many of them battled to isolate apartheid-era South Africa and make pariahs of U.S. companies operating there in the 1980s. Expect the same bruising tactics — and some new ones — this time:

Pressuring shareholders. That means demanding that pension funds and other big institutional investors dump shares of companies linked to slavery.
Activists also may try forcing them to formally debate the issue at annual meetings.

Swaying consumers. They will try to persuade African-Americans to pull money from accused banks and switch policies from tainted insurers.

Blocking mergers. Already, they have tried to get government regulators to kill corporate deals by AIG and J.P. Morgan Chase Manhattan on the grounds the companies haven't told shareholders of potential legal liabilities stemming from any past involvement in slavery. The deals went through anyway.

Enlisting African-American job recruits. The reparations group has close ties to black fraternities and sororities at the nation's colleges. It could urge graduates to shun companies accused of slave profiteering and harass corporate recruiters sent to campuses by accused companies.
The reparations team has been extraordinarily secretive. Members won't reveal the timing, corporate defendants, damages and precise legal argument of any planned lawsuits. That's partly a strategic determination to keep the opposition in the dark. Partly, it reflects unresolved disagreements among the lawyers and scholars putting the case together.

Anyway, what say you about all this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

in the end its all about the money if we boycott the companies that profited from slavery then we can get more of a responce the black dollar is very valuble if we use it wisely

10:47 AM  
Blogger Russell Frank said...

This post has been removed by the author.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Russell Frank said...

Before writing this I would like to note that I am white (of German, Italian, Polish descent) and I was raised a Catholic.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that over a hundred years ago, an ancestor of mine lived in the south and owned slaves (false). Then, in present day, a direct descendant of one of these slaves managed to find me, a direct descendant of the slave owner. Then, this man proceeds to ask me for money. What will my response be? I am sorry for the suffering that this man's ancestors endured, but I did not make a conscious choice to cause such suffering. How can I be held responsible? There's nothing I can do. I obviously can't relate to your situation, but think - you probably cannot relate to mine.

Following the same logic, everyone who was a descendant of anyone involved with the Nazi party in Germany (including the catholic pope, I believe he was involved as a young man) would then owe reparations. And some were paid out, but not nearly as much as descendants of slaves ask for. In fact, you could make this argument with pretty much any group that has ever been oppressed. Do Romans have to pay reparations to the many, many countries they conquered and enslaved? Too long ago? Where do we draw the line?

There is no such thing as guilt by bloodline. Nor is there such a thing as guilt by company affiliation. Again, for the sake of argument, let us state that reparations do, in fact, make perfect sense. Almost everyone has at least a single person in their bloodline who hurt another. Should we all be tracing it back and paying reparations? Again -- where do we draw the line?

Additionally, I can trace my ancestry back to great grandmothers and grandfathers migrating here in the early 20th century. It's in the Ellis Island records.

9:06 PM  

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