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Reparations Sought From U.S. Firms for Slavery
March 26, 2002

By Christian Wiessner NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three large U.S. companies were named in a lawsuit on Tuesday filed on behalf of black Americans descended from slaves, the first-ever class action seeking reparations from firms for profiting from slavery. Aetna Inc., CSX Corp., and FleetBoston Financial Corp. were named in the lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court by 36-year-old black activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann in the latest step by some blacks to get compensation for what their ancestors suffered as slaves.

"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 labor," the 21-page suit said. Both Aetna and CSX said slavery was a regrettable chapter in U.S. history but the events in question occurred so long ago that a courtroom was not the proper venue to decide on reparations.

Plaintiff attorneys said 12 other companies would be getting letters in the coming days requesting a dialogue on a settlement. The other companies were not named. The suit said yet-to-be-named corporate defendants from the industrial, manufacturing, financial and other sectors would be named in subsequent actions once they were identified. The complaint did not contain a monetary damage figure, but did estimate the current value of slaves' unpaid labor as $1.4 trillion.

The gross domestic product of the United States at the end of 2001 was $10.25 trillion. "This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves," said plaintiff attorney Roger Wareham at a news conference. "We expect those companies that are targeted to stand up." Advocates of reparations for slavery argue that the descendants of slaves are still being hurt economically and sociologically by their ancestors' bondage.

Those who argue against compensation say, among other things, that it happened so long ago that reparations would be punishing people who had nothing to do with the practice of slavery. According to the lawsuit, FleetBoston is the successor to Providence Bank, which was founded by Rhode Island businessman John Brown. Brown owned ships that embarked on several slaving voyages and the suit says FleetBoston lent substantial sums to Brown, thus financing and profiting from Brown's slave trade.

FleetBoston also collected customs fees due from ships transporting slaves, thus further profiting, the suit said. FleetBoston did not return a call seeking comment. The suit alleges Aetna's predecessor actually insured slaveholders against the loss of their human chattel. Aetna knew the horrors of slave life as is evident in a rider through which the company declined to make payments on slaves who were lynched, worked to death, or committed suicide. Aetna, the No. 1 U.S. life and health insurer, said in early March it was considering making an unprecedented public apology and restitution payment over profits it made from insuring slaves in America 150 years ago.

On Tuesday, an Aetna spokesman said: "We have not been served with a lawsuit. We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago." CSX is a successor in interest to numerous predecessor railroad lines that were constructed or run, at least in part, by slave labor, according to the suit. CSX said in a statement that while slavery was a tragic chapter in U.S. history, the lawsuit was wholly without merit.

"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," the company said. "The courtrooms are the wrong setting for this issue." The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, the appointment of an independent historic commission, restitution of the descendants' slave labor, disgorgement of illicit profits and compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

According to the suit, over eight million Africans and their descendants were enslaved from 1619 to 1865, many brought to the Americas to work as slaves on tobacco farms, cotton and sugar plantations. The complaint said the exact number of plaintiff class members was not yet known but it estimated the class included millions of slave descendants . In afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading, Aetna shares were up 44 cents at $37.78, CSX shares were up 66 cents at 37.55, and FleetBoston shares were up 24 cents at $35.38.