Sunday, May 26, 2002

Slavery reparations

One man's suit tests skepticism

        I've been skeptical of the national efforts to secure reparations for slavery.

        A recent lawsuit filed by Richard E. Barber Sr. is testing my skepticism.

        The reparations movement is based on the idea that governments and businesses that profited from slavery should make up for it, or repair the damage, via today's descendants of slaves.

        But the movement, launched after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, has garnered no major victories. It has stirred debate and national interest in history, but it hasn't stood up in court.

        Mr. Barber's lawsuit, filed in May, may change that, using new historical information about the slave economy and companies' individual roles in it.

Slave stories

        Mr. Barber is a 62-year-old Somerset, N.J., consultant. His great-grandfather was born into slavery in Trenton. N.C., as was his grandfather, and his five great-aunts and great-uncles.

        One great-aunt, Anna Barber, described living through slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow.

        “You could see the pain in her eyes and hear the pain in her voice,” Mr. Barber said. She died at 101.

        Mr. Barber's father, a sharecropper, endured separate — but woefully unequal — schools. He put his sons through college when many major universities were closed to blacks, Mr. Barber said.

        Slavery's damage coursed through the generations of Mr. Barber's family, belying the oft-expressed criticism about reparations — that the victims died long ago, so redress is moot.

        A growing body of historic corporate records is making it less moot, while giving reparations lawyers their most powerful weapon yet.

        Last year California's insurance laws changed to require insurers to turn over records of insured slaves or slave transactions.

        At least eight insurers unearthed records documenting hundreds of slaves, owners, transactions, policies and payouts. Some documents included monetary values and listed slaves' work.

        The data wasn't comprehensive or complete. Slaves were often listed by their first names only.

        But these records draw a clearer road map for people such as Mr. Barber and their attorneys to follow slavery's money trail, a path that corporate acquisitions and reincarnations have not erased.

        Mr. Barber's lawsuit seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages from a major insurance company, a railroad and a financial concern. Each owned slaves or owned companies the profited from slaves.

        A similar lawsuit, filed in March by three New York women, targets a different railroad, financial company and insurer.

Unjust profit

        Both suits accuse the companies of human rights violations, conspiracy and “unjust enrichment.” And both suits seek class-action status which, if a judge certifies it, could make millions of African-Americans plaintiffs. Winnings would go into a trust to benefit all blacks, Mr. Barber said.

        But I wouldn't count those dollars yet.

        Representatives of the accused corporations say they'll fight these cases in court, pointing out that slavery, though horrible, was perfectly legal for about 250 years. They'll also challenge whether today's plaintiffs can represent the injured parties.

        It's not far-fetched to imagine some judges agree with those arguments.

        To be sure, reparations lawyers say they plan to file similar suits in other states and will add to the defendant lists.

       Call Denise Smith Amos at 768-8395, or e-mail


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