At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a number of prominent African-Americans began demanding that the U.S. government compensate them for their ancestors' unpaid slave labor. But until very recently, the idea that blacks born today are somehow owed money because of what happened to their ancestors more than a century ago was never taken seriously by the American legal establishment. That may be changing. VOA's Maura Farrelly reports that a lawsuit filed in California counters some of the most powerful arguments made against so-called "slave reparations".
Until recently, the argument for slave reparations was stymied by two demographic realities that were very difficult to deny. The first was that thousand, maybe even millions of present-day white Americans are descended from immigrants who didn't come to this country until after slavery had been outlawed in 1865. Yet, according to the argument put forth in the 1960s, their tax dollars should be used to compensate blacks today for the labor other white people's ancestors stole from slaves.
The second reality confounding reparations advocates was that slavery is a part of America's distant past. It's not like the internment of Japanese-Americans just 60 years ago, during World War II. Many who were directly affected by that policy are still alive, and the U.S. government has apologized to them and paid them $20,000 each. Slavery was outlawed 138 years ago. There are no former slaves alive today.
But there are two men in California with a direct connection to slavery. Eighty-three-year-old Timothy Hurdle and his 75-year-old brother, Chester, are the sons of Andrew Jackson Hurdle, who was born a slave in North Carolina in 1845.
"The family, you know, was all together until about the middle of the nineteenth century, I guess about '54 or '55, somewhere along there," Mr. Hurdle said. "And then they were picked up and auctioned off. And five of the children were bought by Bennet Hazel, of Alamance County. And Papa was sold into Texas, because he was sold to a, I think, a C.H. Turner, of Dangerfield."
The Hurdle brothers are the product of their father's second marriage. At the age of 65, Andrew Jackson Hurdle married a 25-year-old and had eight children. After reading an editorial that suggested all arguments in favor of slave reparations are invalid, because no one alive was directly affected by slavery, Chester Hurdle decided to file a lawsuit. He and his brother are seeking undetermined damages and compensation for the 20 years their father spent as a slave.
"I feel that if anything is ever going to be done about it, while there are still some of us here that are supposedly in our right mind, I think someone should take some action to try to do something about it," Chester Hurdle said.
Chester and Timothy Hurdle say they don't want the money they're seeking to be paid to them directly. Rather, they'd like to see it used to set up a massive scholarship fund, so that African-Americans who are disproportionately poor will have the same educational opportunities many white Americans enjoy.
The Hurdle brothers also don't want taxpayers, regardless of their skin color to pay for the reparations. That's why their lawsuit doesn't target the U.S. government. They're suing a bank that was founded by a slave trader, an insurance company that at one time insured the lives of slaves and a railroad that used slave labor to build its original tracks.
Attorney Barbara Ratliff says the Hurdles' case is based on a statute recently passed by lawmakers in California. "It allows a person to bring a lawsuit against a business when the business has gotten illegal profit, or has gotten profits from illegal conduct," she said.
At the time these companies were profiting from slavery, the institution had not been declared illegal by the federal government. But it had been made illegal by many state governments; and in fact, after 1820, slavery was outlawed in every northern state except Missouri. The companies Chester and Timothy Hurdle are suing were based in these northern states. But that's irrelevant, according to David Horowitz, a legal scholar and prominent opponent of slave reparations. He says if these companies are forced to pay slave reparations, it will penalize people who had nothing to do with slavery, including many African-Americans.
"A company that existed 150 years ago is not the same as a company that exists today," Mr. Horowitz said. "I mean, look at Enron. It was the seventh biggest corporation two years ago, now it's zero. Which means that a company has to earn its way in every generation. So when you're suing these companies you're suing living shareholders and living employees. You know, we're talking about tens of thousands of black people who are going to have to pay reparations because of these suits."
Nevertheless, David Horowitz admits the Hurdle brothers' lawsuit is a different approach to the decades-old reparations debate and says because the two men have such a direct connection to slavery, it's possible they may deserve to be paid "something". But Mr. Horowitz won't speculate on an amount, nor will he say where the money should come from.
Similar lawsuits have been filed by African-Americans in New Jersey, New York, and Louisiana, but these cases are considered to be less solid, since those states don't have statutes like the California law allowing individuals to sue companies that profited from illegal activity. The plaintiffs also aren't the immediate descendents of slaves. But Chester Hurdle says it's okay if these other lawsuits are unsuccessful, because if he wins, he intends to have millions of African-Americans benefit from his victory.