U.S. federal courts are now considering two separate lawsuits brought by African Americans seeking reparations for slavery during the 1800s. The potentially historic lawsuits follow other successful legal action brought against German corporations who used slave labor during the Nazi era.
Slavery, as an institution, ended in 1865 in the United States after a bloody Civil War. Now, for the first time, more than 100 years later, two class action lawsuits accuse large U.S. corporations of profiting from slavery.
The first case, filed in U.S. Federal Court in New York in March, named three companies, Aetna Insurance, FleetBoston bank and the railroad company CSX. About one month later, another suit in nearby New Jersey named New York Life Insurance, the investment-firm Brown Brothers and Norfolk Southern Corporation.
In the words of the March lawsuit, "the practice of slavery constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty, African citizenship rights and cultural heritage."
Two African-American activists brought the suits. They seek historic company documents and a jury trial that would determine the payment of punitive damages to the African-American community, along with the appointment of an independent commission.
Attorney Diane Sammons, who represents the plaintiffs, says, "U.S. corporations benefited from stolen labor, from stolen people and from crimes against humanity. And they are still holding on to the benefits of those particular crimes and they should not be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains."
Ms. Sammons says a multi-billion dollar settlement against German companies, which used slave labor under the Nazi-era in the 1930s and 1940s, set a legal precedent for the lawsuits.
But critics argue there are differences. They say that although the U.S. corporations or their predecessors named in the suits may have unjustly profited from slavery, the events are so old that the survivors of slavery and their children are no longer alive.
In a statement, New York Life Insurance spokesman, William Werfelman, says his company regrets that its predecessor, Nautilus Insurance, sold insurance policies on the lives of slaves between 1846 and 1847. Nonetheless, he says a company should be judged by its current actions and he expects to win in court.
"The fact that slavery was legal in certain parts of the United States at the time does not make it any less repugnant," he emphasized. "Regarding the lawsuits, any lawsuits about events 150-years ago face huge legal hurdles. And we fully expect to prevail in court."
The lawyers who brought the cases argue that the statute of limitations can be extended, since slavery is considered a crime against humanity in international courts. In addition, the claims are based on the legal concept of corporate liability.
Roger Wareham, who also represents the people who brought the cases, says the lawsuits are the latest in a growing campaign, pressing for reparations for slavery. Behind the efforts lies the argument that although slavery was abolished in the 19th century, about 35 million African American descendants of slaves continue to suffer from it through institutionalized racism.
Mr. Wareham says statistics show that as a group, American blacks lag behind whites in economics, education, health and life expectancy. "In every indicator of life, if you took at those statistics of the black community and the white community, and you place them on a chart next to each other, no one would believe that you are talking about people who are supposed citizens of the same country, [who] had the same opportunities, the same access," Mr. Wareham says. "You would think that you were talking about the comparison between a developing country and a developed country."
The U.S. government has never officially apologized or compensated African-Americans for slavery. Mr. Wareham says attorneys are searching for ways to get around the legal rule [sovereign immunity] that exempts the U.S. government from slave reparations lawsuits.
Meanwhile, new class-action lawsuits against additional companies accused of benefiting from slavery are expected to be filed in courts across the nation in the next month.