In the controversial best seller, The Debt, its author, Randall Robinson, stares up awe-struck at the U.S. Capitol building, reflecting on something perhaps only few Americans know — that many of the workmen who built the Capitol were slaves.
In the first eight years of the Capitol’s construction, more than 60 percent of the laborers were slaves. The records exist — pay slips in the national archives, issued by the Department of Treasury, listing the names of black hired laborers, none of whom have a last name.
Peter, Tom, Ben and hundreds of other slaves worked, but none were paid. But their owners were; that’s what the receipts are for.
And yet, as Robinson points out, once the building was up and artists and sculptors moved in to make the place a shrine to liberty, the slaves’ contribution, any black contribution, was painted out of the picture.
The story of white men being paid for work performed by black slaves at the Capitol and the White House may be an old story. But now it’s at the center of a new lawsuit filed in a federal courthouse in Chicago.
Edward Fagan, an attorney for the plaintiffs, explains: “The issue is: Should companies be allowed to retain profits that they made from illegal activities, unlawful activities, and never account for those profits and never give back to the affected communities?”
Proponents of slavery reparations are encouraged by the Holocaust reparations cases of the 1990s Fagan helped argue and ultimately win. Germany, Austria and a host of European companies that used slave laborers during the Nazi era ultimately settled out of court, creating a $4 billion fund to pay claims to those who were enslaved.
Insurance Policies for Slaves
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann has emerged as the leading investigator and cataloger of American firms whose corporate ancestors, it is alleged in the Chicago case, profited from the slave trade. For Farmer-Paellmann, her involvement began when she was in law school.
“I made a call to Aetna Inc. and I asked them for copies of slave policies,” she said. “They were very happy to send a couple of policies. Not only did they send the policies, though. They sent copies of circulars that other companies used to advertise their slave policies. And when I got the package, I just cried, you know. I was just really very moved by the whole thing — that a major corporation that we know and use today played a role in this practice.”
She adds: “The slave policies actually financed the enslavement of Africans. So, an individual who might be uncertain about investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the purchasing of humans might get the go-ahead from Aetna. You know: ‘Go ahead, buy that person. If they die, we’ve got you covered. You can buy another one.’”
Since then, Farmer-Paellmann and others have compiled a growing list of American companies, 19 in all, they say profited from the crime of slavery in various ways.
Slaves in the field, were paid for, they allege, with loans — some of which were provided by Brown Brothers Harriman, today one of the nation’s oldest and largest private banking firms.
Some slave ships crossing the Atlantic were financed by a bank called Providence Bank, which grew and merged its way into a larger corporation that today is called Fleet Boston.
Slave labor was critical in the building of the railroad, and through a century of mergers and acquisitions, the old routes are now the property of a corporation called CSX.