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Attorneys for a former law student, who discovered evidence linking U.S. corporations to the slave trade, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday that could seek billions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of slaves in America.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn names FleetBoston Financial, the railroad firm CSX and the Aetna insurance company, and promises to name up to 100 additional corporations at a later date.
It accuses the companies of conspiracy, human rights violations, unjust enrichment from their corporate predecessors' roles in the slave trade and conversion of the value of the slaves' labor into their profits.
"These are corporations that benefited from stealing people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts, and there's no reason why they should be able to hold onto assets they acquired through such horrendous acts," said Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Farmer-Paellmann said she learned of Aetna's role in insuring slaves in legal classes, and then asked Aetna for old policies documenting the practice, which Aetna provided to her.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 35 million African-Americans. It seeks financial payments for the value of "stolen" labor and unjust enrichment and calls for the companies to give up "illicit profits." The plaintiffs are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
The lawsuit does not seek a specific dollar amount, but estimates slaves performed as much as $40 million worth of unpaid labor between 1790 and 1860. The current value of that labor could be as high as $1.4 trillion
The lawsuit alleges that Aetna's corporate predecessor "insured human slave owners against the loss of their human chattel."
In response, Aetna released a statement saying, "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."
The lawsuit notes that FleetBoston is a successor to Providence Bank, which it says was founded by Rhode Island slave trader John Brown. FleetBoston had no immediate comment on the suit.
The suit alleges that CSX, based in Richmond, Virginia, is a successor to numerous railroads that were built or run, at least in part, by slave labor.
In a statement, CSX said the suit is "wholly without merit and should be dismissed. The claimants named CSX because slave labor was used to construct portions of some U.S. rail lines under the political and legal system in place more than a century before CSX was formed in 1980."
Slave reparations have been a controversial issue. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last month found a wide difference of opinion on the issue between black and white respondents.
Nine out of 10 white respondents said the government should not make cash payments to slave descendants while 6 percent said it should.
Among black respondents, 55 percent said the government should make cash payments and 37 percent said it should not.
The poll surveyed 1,001 adults -- 820 of them white and 146 black -- February 8-10. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 9 percentage points for black respondents and plus or minus 4 percent points for white respondents. The percentages differ because of the difference in the number of people surveyed.
The same people were asked if corporations that made profits from slavery should apologize to African-Americans. Among blacks, 68 percent said they should while 23 percent said they should not. Among whites, 32 percent said they should and 62 percent said they should not.
Three-fourths of black respondents said the companies should set up scholarship funds for descendants of slaves and 20 percent said they should not. Among white respondents, 35 percent of respondents said they favored the scholarship funds while 61 percent said they were opposed.
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