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.
Since the case was filed, all 19 firms, Aetna, CSX, Brown Brothers and the others, have
filed a motion to dismiss. A decision is expected within weeks.
None of the companies provided a spokesman for a recent report on ABCNEWS’ Nightline that is the basis for this story. But in their motion, they argue there can be no legal claim against them when, “Allegations are so sweeping, the connections between the parties so tenuous, and the events in question so remote.”
Remote, however, depends upon where you sit.
In Unpredictable Debate, Legal Case May Fail
Antoinette Harrell-Miller, a plaintiff in the court case, doesn’t feel the need to draw a direct line between whether a specific ancestor was directly harmed by railroad company X or by insurance company Y. The New Orleans genealogist, who hosts a weekly TV program devoted to reparations, says it’s enough that the ancestor lived in bondage.
“He was a slave, kidnapped, brought into this country, forced to work, free labor,” she said. “That’s all it takes. That’s the way to come back into those families, you know. Look, you made money off my ancestors. You’re still making money today. Now, that’s a slap in the face to any African-American.”
Law experts say the legal reality is that the reparations case is probably going to fail.
And yet, that stark reality is unlikely to shut down the discussion on slavery reparations. There are too many voices in the African-American community that take this question more seriously, not less, as time passes.
For other people, something about the topic of slavery reparations sets them off. Some mock it. Some are infuriated by it. Some think it over and decide it’s just not realistic.
Who falls on which side of the debate is not always predictable.
There are whites who are for it, like the attorney Fagan. “I think everybody feels that it’s
OK to continue to just say to the African-Americans, ‘Sorry, you’re not entitled to anything. Don’t blame us for your lot in life today,’” he said. “The truth is they have a right to blame us for their lot in life today.
There are blacks who are against reparations, like the syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock. “It’s been 140 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Murdock said. “At some point, what we as black people and we as a society have got to do is stop looking in the rear-view mirror, look through the windshield and see where we’re going forward, rather than where we were in the past.”
Headlines May Harm Firms
The question of whether too much time has passed is crucial, according to one of the central figures in the Holocaust reparations case.
“I don’t think they can get very far in the court of law,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. special envoy. “If they want to succeed, it will be in the court of public opinion.”
After all, the Holocaust cases never went anywhere in court because the judges always threw them out. In the end, those German companies, Swiss banks and others agreed to pay damages just to get themselves out of the headlines. It’s a lesson Eizenstat thinks the slavery reparations movement should study carefully.
“We should use these cases as a platform to look at our past, as we used the Holocaust cases to force private companies in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, to take a look at their conduct, and in the end, to be accountable for it,” he said. “Even though, again, the legal basis was very shaky.”
Another lesson from the Holocaust settlement may be that only the actual victims, not
their descendants, ever received any money.
“We made the very tough decision in our mediation that we had to cut it off at some point,” Eizenstat said. “There wasn’t enough money. The difficulty of trying to track down the heirs of 10 million slave-enforced laborers would have taken so long that the people we would have tried to benefit would have long since died.”
Added Eizenstate: “We created a concept we called rough justice. Rather than settling cases in law, where you had to prove a direct connection between damage and injury, we basically said, we’re going to pay people in their lifetimes, quickly.”
The problem, of course, is that most American slaves who were directly wronged are long gone. The injustice, some argue, is simply too old for the law to redress now.
Some Cities Pass Laws Making Slave Profits Public
There also may be historical questions. Did the United States, as some say, already enact reparations by fighting a Civil War and outlawing slavery, and by constructing, under President Lyndon Johnson, a series of Great Society government programs designed, in part, to undo the effects of discrimination?
There may be more questions than one probably doomed lawsuit in Chicago can come anywhere close to answering.
But the current case will not be the end of it, said the woman who started it with a law school project. Companies, she said, will feel growing pressure.
“The amount of information on reparations is only growing,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “People are becoming better-educated on the subject. They’re going to face more difficult times later on. The sooner that they put this behind them, the better off they are.”
The cities of Chicago and Los Angeles have passed laws requiring companies that do business with those governments to declare whether they have any profits in their past based on the labor of slaves. It’s unclear whether this is the beginning of a trend.
And no such federal law currently exists. That would require action by the Senate and the House of Representatives that operate under the Capitol dome that slaves built for no pay, during another time in U.S. history.