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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 23:49 GMT
US firms face slave reparations suit
A Library of Congress photo depicts Southern slave life
Many blacks seek reparations for 250 years of slavery
Three major US corporations have been named in a lawsuit filed in New York on behalf of African Americans who are seeking compensation for the abuses suffered by their ancestors.


This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves

Plaintiff's lawyer
Roger Wareham
The lawsuit is the first of its kind and accuses insurer Aetna, railroad firm CSX and financial-services firm FleetBoston of profiting from the slave trade before it was abolished in 1865.

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a 36-year-old lawyer who has campaigned for reparations for several years, filed the lawsuit on Tuesday in a Brooklyn federal court.

"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 labour," the 21-page suit reads.

Accused
Insurer Aetna
Railroad company CSX
Financial-services firm FleetBoston

Ms Paellmann's complaint contends CSX, FleetBoston and Aetna were "unjustly enriched" by "a system that enslaved, tortured, starved and exploited human beings".

Some 35 million African Americans are the descendants of the eight million men and women who were enslaved from 1619 to 1865.

Regret

Aetna has considered the possibility of issuing an apology and making restitution for profits made from insuring slaves during the 1850s.

In a written statement, the company expressed deep regret for issuing insurance policies that paid the owner in the event of a slave's death.

But on Tuesday, it issued a statement saying that it had not been served with a lawsuit and that it did not "believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago."

Aetna said in a statement on Monday it had invested $36m (25.2m) in the African-American community, targeting areas such as education, health and other areas. The firm said it embraced diversity and supported diverse causes.

Suit 'without merit'

CSX, which was created in 1980, stands accused of benefiting from slave labour used to construct rail lines for predecessor companies.

Reverend Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson supports compensation for slavery

CSX has issued a statement, saying the lawsuit was without merit and that "courtrooms are the wrong setting for this issue".

Spokeswoman Kathy Burns said: "It is an unfortunate misuse of the legal system to attempt to address issues well over a century old at the expense of today's workers and stockholders."

The suit against FleetBoston alleges that the founder of the predecessor firm, Providence Bank, made much of his fortune in the slave trade.

According to the complaint, Rhode Island businessman John Brown owned slave ships and benefited from loans made by Providence Bank to help finance the voyages.

FleetBoston has yet to issue a public statement regarding the lawsuit.

Centuries of slavery

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial among other matters, including the appointment of an independent historic commission, restitution of the descendants' slave labour, and compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

"This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves," said the plaintiff's lawyer Roger Wareham at a news conference.

"We expect those companies that are targeted to stand up," he said.

Ms Farmer-Paellmann's complaint alleges that the disparities that currently exist between blacks and whites in the US are a product of 250 years of enslavement and more than a century of institutionalised racism.

Successive generations of African Americans have failed to persuade the US Government to apologise or offer compensation.

The lawsuit further alleges that dozens of other corporations benefited from the labour of slaves in a variety of industries, including tobacco, coal and textiles.

In a similar legal manoeuvre, survivors of the Holocaust secured $4bn in reparations from firms that used Nazi-era slave labour.

Those companies included Deutsche Bank, conglomerate Siemens and carmakers Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Thomas Jomo, lawyer
"There are no statutes of limitation on crimes against humanity."
The BBC's Manoush Zomorodi
"None of the companies were ever breaking US law"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | Business
Dutch process Holocaust claims
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