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US Slave-Era Documents May Bolster Case for Reparations - 2002-05-10

Documents from the slave-era in the United States may have bolstered the case for reparations for the descendants of slaves. Insurance companies that sold policies to slaveholders are the targets of recent lawsuits.

Activists have filed lawsuits in New York and Los Angeles against several companies that insured the lives of slaves, usually for several hundred dollars.

Documents compiled by California officials give some of the specifics, including the names of more than 300 slaveholders, the states where they lived and first names of their slaves. None of the policies was issued in California, where slaveholding was illegal.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in the lawsuits say the owners wrongly profited from the labor of their slaves, then made profits again from insurance payments after the slaves died. Sociologist Pat Benefield heads an organization called the Reparations Action Coalition. She brought some descendants of slaves to the offices of the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper to display the insurance papers. "These are replicas of the documents," she says. "Can you see?"

The black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel opened its doors to its readers to view the California registry with information from the 19th century slaveholders' policies. State officials compiled the record after legislators passed a law requiring insurance firms that do business in California to provide data on their slave-era practices.

The Sentinel's managing editor, James Bolden, says readers could come to see if anyone made profits from the death of their ancestors. "Not only are we going to have this briefing to inform the community and give out the information, but we are also going to display some of the documents and photos and the register here at the Sentinel for about an hour today so people can come through and see it," he says.

Companies listed in the documents include Aetna and New York Life, whose spokesmen say they abhor the involvement of their predecessors in the institution of slavery. But the company officials say the events occurred 150 years ago and the companies should be judged by their values and actions today.

Eighty-two-year-old Lucille Lewis does not know if anyone took out an insurance policy on the life of her great-grandmother, a slave in the states of Kansas and Missouri. "Her name was Liza Hawkins and she lived in the back house," she says. "And she was married and her owner lived in the front house. And she was his, whatever you want to call it, he would go visit her when he got ready. And then my grandmother came from that."

Ms. Lewis's grandmother, the product of the union, would later marry a man like her, the child of a female slave and her white master.

Ms. Lewis belongs to an organization called Kindred Spirits, made up of descendants of slaves. She says members share family stories. "It's interesting but it's very hurting because every time you tell it, you get mad all over again. If you tell it long enough, everybody will hear," she says. "But you've got to keep on telling it because there are those that don't believe and there are those that say "it's too late to do anything about it." It's never too late to make amends."

Ms. Lewis says the effects of slavery are still being felt, 150 years later. "Lack of opportunities, lack of education, lack of having the will and the desire," she says. "After you've been brow-beaten a long time, you don't want to do anything but stand back and say "yes, yes, yes," and that's no good."

The hopes of black activists have been buoyed by successful efforts by families of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. German companies have made payments for their forced labor and Swiss banks have offered compensation for accounts confiscated during the Second World War.

One African American activist said the descendants of slaves want their family stories to be more than a footnote in history. And a lawyer who worked on reparations for Jewish Holocaust victims predicts more lawsuits will be filed by the descendants of slaves.