Capitalism and slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jun 4 11:04:53 MDT 2001

NY Times, June 4, 2001

Calls for Slavery Restitution Getting Louder


Part of the new momentum in the reparations movement comes from efforts to
win restitution not just from the federal government, but also from
companies that profited from slavery. "I started doing research about the
possibility of a lawsuit against the government," said Deadria
Farmer-Paellmann, a lawyer. "But I turned to corporations, after finding
how difficult it would be to win a claim against the government, given
sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations, and an opinion by a
relatively liberal court rejecting the idea. If you can show a company made
immoral gains by profiting from slavery, you can file an action for unjust

Historians say that slavery was so central to the economy in the early days
of America that almost every business benefited from it. "The entire
economy of this country was based on slavery, North as well as South," said
Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University. "New York had a
stranglehold on the cotton trade, which made up half the total value of
U.S. exports in 1850. Brooks Brothers supplied a lot of clothing to
plantation owners. Merchants, manufacturers, everyone felt the economic

Government benefited, too, often using slaves to build public works. Slaves
helped build the United States Capitol - and their owners received $5 a
month for their labor.

Ms. Farmer-Paellmann, who found the documents about Aetna's slave policies,
is pursuing other companies that profited from slavery. Among her
discoveries was a 1906 history of the New York Life Insurance Company,
which explained that "among the first 1,000 policies issued, 339 were upon
the lives of negro slaves in Maryland and Virginia."

Spurred by the California legislation, New York Life is now reviewing its
archives, to find out to what extent the company may have sold insurance to
slave owners.

Although no lawsuits have been filed, some old-line companies have
reportedly begun to worry about their exposure. Owen Pell, a New York
lawyer who represented several companies in Holocaust-related litigation,
has spoken informally with several companies about the possibility and
potential shape of claims relating to African slavery.

Ultimately, insurance companies may not be the most important defendants.
The ripest potential defendants, some lawyers say, may be municipal
governments, which do not have the same sovereign immunity as the federal
government, and tobacco companies or railroads - even those that declared
bankruptcy after the Civil War, since the old bankruptcy code did not wipe
out any debts or liabilities that were not specifically declared.

Often the connection to slavery is mentioned in company histories: a
history of the Arkwright Manufacturing Company, now owned by the Dutch
company Océ, describes how James DeWolf, a slave trader, "invested his
slaving profits in the textile mills" Arkwright operated in Rhode Island.

To be sure, it is a long stretch from a 19th- century slave trader to a
21st-century Dutch company that makes copying machines, and Océ officials
seemed baffled by any possible connection to the slave trade. "This is the
first I've heard of it," said Karen Fitt, a company spokeswoman.

Still, Ms. Farmer-Paellmann says, companies built on the profits from
slavery may become strong advocates for reparations from the government, as
opposed to the private sector.

"My interest in this is to get these corporations, once they are aware of
their own connections, to be our chief lobbyists in Washington for other
forms of restitution," she said. "Apologies aren't enough."

If the idea of paying reparations for slavery makes Americans uneasy, Mr.
Ogletree of Harvard said, it is probably partly because, for most whites,
it is a new idea, based on a history they do not understand. "The
uneasiness that some express about reparations is the same uneasiness that
we had about integration, about women's right to choose," he said. "We've
gained some important mainstream viability, but these things take time."

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Louis Proyect
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