BANKS ARE TARGET OF LAWSUIT
Corporate America's Uncashed Check: Disgorging the Ill-Gotten Gains of Slave Labor
by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, Bruce I. Afran, and Carl J. Mayer
On September 27th in a federal courthouse in Chicago an appellate panel will hear argument in the first case that seeks to hold major American financial institutions liable for their role in financing, underwriting and profiting from slavery in the United States.
Many groups have received reparations for past atrocities and historical injustices, but never African-Americans.
This recent lawsuit marks a new departure in the battle for reparations. Rather than seek to hold the government responsible for the general historic wrongs of slavery, this litigation targets the companies that specifically profited – often illegally – from slavery. The plaintiffs are descendants of slaves upon whom these financial institutions profited.
For years, these companies covered-up their shameful role in what historians call “the peculiar institution.” As late as March 2004 a representative of JP Morgan Chase told a Chicago City Council meeting that it had searched its archives and could not find a connection to slavery. By January 2005, the multi-billion dollar bank admitted on its website that its predecessor bank used 13,000 slaves as collateral on loans and actually took possession of 1,200 African-American slaves.
Similarly, Bank of America denied until 2005 that it had any involvement in America’s slave trade. Through the dogged determination of researchers, it turns out that Bank of America’s predecessor banks actually facilitated the illegal importation of up to 41,000 African slaves into America. (This type of slave trafficking was made illegal by federal and state statute as early as the eighteenth century.)
Defendant Brown Brothers Harriman built their merchant bank by lending to southern planters, brokering slave grown cotton and acting as a clearinghouse for the South's complex financial system. It earned commissions arranging cotton shipments from southern ports to mills in New England and Britain and loaned millions directly to planters, merchants and cotton brokers throughout the South. When those planters or their banks failed, Brown Brothers used its local agents to run repossessed plantations that included enslaved Africans.
The movement for corporate restitution is gaining momentum. Recently an organization called Blacks in Government – with over a million members – passed a resolution to hold Aetna corporation accountable for its role in slavery. Aetna – a Connecticut-based insurance company --financed the domestic enslavement of African Americans through writing insurance policies on slaves with slave owners as the beneficiaries. The state of California and the City of Chicago now require corporations seeking to do government business to disclose their historic involvement in slavery; up to nine other states have passed similar resolutions.
The legal principle at stake in this case is simple and timeless: corporations must be made to disgorge the profits they unjustly earned on the backs of brutalized slaves. A similar principle was at work when banks and corporations who profited from slave labor used by the Nazi regime disgorged their ill-gotten gains.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of a check marked “insufficient funds” that America owed blacks. Only days before he died, King said: “It's all right to tell a man to lift himself up by his bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his bootstraps."
Some of America’s largest financial powerhouses financed the cruel institution of slavery, thereby ensuring that several generations of African-Americans would remain, in King’s words, “bootless.” It is time for corporate America to pay the first installment on America’s uncashed check.
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is the founder of the Restitution study group and the lead plaintiff in Farmer-Paellmann et. al. v. Brown and Williamson. Bruce I. Afran and Carl J. Mayer are public interest attorneys working on the litigation. For more information on the case go to www.newjerseyuntouchables.blogspot.com or to www.rsgincorp.com. Reader response: Paellmann@rcn.com.