Slavery Reparations Federal Suit Filed
200 La. Residents Make Claim
September 4, 2002

Companies who insured slaves as property for plantation owners or used their labor to build financial dynasties should pay reparations to surviving family members, claims a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in New Orleans on behalf of about 200 Louisiana residents identifying themselves as descendants of African slaves.

"We are representing the 35 million Africans who are struggling as a result of slavery," genealogist and spokeswoman Antoinette Harrell-Miller said. "As Sept. 11 approaches, we will mourn for the lives lost in last year's terrorism attacks, but no one has ever mourned the loss of lives in the transatlantic slave trade and the lynchings and the terrorist attack that we as African descendants have had to endure under 240 years of slavery."

The lawsuit was similar to several filed Tuesday in New York, Illinois, Texas and California. The suits are part of an effort that began with a lawsuit filed in March in New York. The original New York lawsuit seeks reparations from Aetna Insurance, CSX Railroad and FleetBoston financial services, the plaintiffs said.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in New Orleans added new companies to the defendants' list, including Lloyds of London; Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.; R.J. Reynolds; Liggett Group and Brown and Williamson. Three railroads were also named as defendants: Canadian, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific.

Standing in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building Tuesday afternoon, members of Genealogy Leads to Reparations said the named companies should be held responsible for supporting a system that has left millions of black people incapable of acquiring wealth or property.

"Money was collected all across America to help the surviving family members of last year's terrorist attacks," Harrell-Miller said. "But no one ever gave one dollar to any black family after the emancipation of slavery in 1865. We are still trying to collect our 40 acres and a mule, with interest."

Robert Westley, an associate professor at Tulane Law School, said the lawsuits will face hurdles, including statutes of limitation and identifying the direct descendants of slaves.

Nevertheless, the suits have spurred a national conversation, Westley said.

"In order for there to be a fair settlement, there needs to be legislation," said Westley, who doesn't believe the issue can be resolved in a courtroom. "It's going to have to be something that Congress deals with."

African-Americans seeking reparations are modeling themselves after the reparation efforts of Japanese-Americans who were placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II. The movement started with federal lawsuits and ultimately led to legislation and a $1.25 billion compensation bill signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, Westley said.

Westley said he envisions a reparations settlement that would build an infrastructure for education, health care, property ownership and business development.

Slavery created a huge gap between black and white wealth and expropriated the opportunity for financial success and property ownership, he said.

"It prevented them from owning property because they were property," Westley said. "This is not about an undeserved privilege. This is about a payment for a debt that is owed, and time does not extinguish debt, ask any creditor."

Barbara Leonard, a Louisiana plaintiff, said the search for her family history has led to Alabama, North Carolina and Kentucky, where she has had to search the plantation record books of cattle to locate her ancestors.

"If I do not look among the cows and horses, I will not find my people," said Leonard, who used the experience as an example of how badly African-Americans have been treated in the United States. "You can't hide the wound. You can't heal until you have worked on the wound."

Copyright 2002, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation

From: The Times-Picayune, September 4, 2002, p. B-1.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.


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