Human Rights Reporting

Spring 2001 Student Work

© 2002 by Amy Rubin

African-American advocates of slavery reparations encouraged by Holocaust payouts

By Amy Rubin

For Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, the legacy of slavery is apparent in everyday discrimination—whether shopping at a store, applying for a job or searching for a home.

A recent graduate of law school, Farmer-Paellmann says it’s time for the U.S. government and corporations to own up to their involvement in the slave trade and provide reparations to slave descendants—for justice to finally be served, 143 years after emancipation.

“Slaves worked to subsidize the American economy and never earned a dime,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

Reparations of one sort or another has become a common topic in recent history. The United States government has paid $20,000 to each Japanese-American imprisoned in World War II internment camps. Since the 1950s, the German government has provided monetary compensation to Holocaust survivors, with the most recent settlement promising to establish a $4.8 billion fund to compensate slave and forced laborers during the war. And in February of this year, an Oklahoma commission recommended compensation for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots and their descendants.

Encouraged by these success stories, several African-American groups now want reparations for the injustices of slavery. Living on the Lower East Side with her husband and 6-month-old baby, Farmer-Paellmann, 35, is on a personal crusade to recover what she believes has been taken away from her and the other descendants of slaves.

“We Americans have been taught that black people are less than human,” she said. “We’re doing the human thing. We want justice just like anyone else.”

Farmer-Paellmann’s husband is German, so she often looks to the restitution paid out to Holocaust survivors as a model for her own reparations campaign. Together, she and her husband plan to teach their daughter both sides of her ancestors’ history—Nazi Germany and slavery in America.

Farmer-Paellmann’s family background directly connects her to slavery.

“My great-great grandmother was a slave—a runaway slave in the 1860’s,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “I never got any kind of inheritance. Part of my effort is for descendants of slaves to get their inheritance.”

For the nearly 244 years between the arrival of the first black slaves in North America and emancipation in 1863, roughly 10 million slaves worked for their masters. If you calculate their wages at 25 cents a day—the going rate for unskilled labor back then—blacks were cheated out of $222 billion. With a 3 percent interest rate to account for inflation, the figure would increase to $15 trillion.

People on both sides of the reparations debate agree that it is unlikely that the U.S. government would foot the bill.

“You think the white man is going to give up all his money to blacks?” said Eric Foner, a scholar on slavery and the Reconstruction era at Columbia University. “That’s not American politics, that’s American history.”

In 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman promised newly freed slaves “40 acres and a mule”—but the U.S. government never delivered. Reparations activists like attorney Johnnie Cochran argue that the debt still needs to be paid.

“If you go to Washington, D.C.,” Cochran said, “you look at those beautiful buildings, you look at the Washington Monument, you look at the U.S. Capitol. They were built by slaves. They were never compensated for it. If there has been a wrong, let’s try to right the wrong.”

“The government, through its constitution, allowed slavery to exist,” Farmer-Paellmann said. Yet she decided to focus her efforts on “white, corporate America.”

“Corporations along with some private individuals benefited from it. I ended up focusing on corporations because I saw a greater likelihood of success,” she said.

Last year, she succeeded in obtaining a public apology from Aetna, the country's largest health insurer, for selling life insurance policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave masters for financial loss when their slaves died.

“I think Aetna responded with an apology for more than one reason,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “They have African-Americans working for their company and I think it would be callous not to respond.”

Although the company issued a public apology, Aetna refused to make any financial restitution, because the insurance policies—issued a full decade before emancipation—did not break any laws at the time. In addition, according to the company’s spokesman Fred Laberge, Aetna already gives financial support, including scholarships, to black communities.

“I know Aetna makes a contribution with a variety of charities,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “But it doesn’t excuse them for support of crimes against humanity. They’re giving gifts and I’m not asking them for a gift. I’m asking them to pay a debt.”

She says Aetna is just one of many companies that benefited from the inhumane institution of slavery. It was at the New England School of Law where she started researching the topic of reparations. Graduating from law school in 1999, she launched her reparations campaign last year during Black History Month. She researches corporations, forges alliances with other activists, and speaks at law schools to promote the cause.

“We’re moving into a new century and it’s time for these companies to pay up,” she said.

But some black leaders are highly critical of the reparations movement.

“It is just another hustle,” said Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress on Racial Equality. “A continuation of the neo-affirmative action programs that they had in mind.”

Innis added that reparations activists will only make things worse for black communities.

“In the same way they did not define affirmative action,” he said, “in the same way they are not going to define reparations, and they are not going to define how it should be implemented.”

He concluded, “Should it even come, you can be certain that the masses of black people who received the least, will be taken to the cleaners again.”

Farmer-Paellmann says there is a clear purpose for the money.

“I would like these companies to establish trust funds,” she explained, “to be used for educational opportunities for descendants of slaves, and for economic development. If there’s a question about it, Roy Innis is welcome to assist in making sure funds are used properly.”

Shortly after Aetna’s public statement, the Hartford Courant, one of America’s oldest newspapers, also apologized to African-Americans. The paper had run want ads in the 1800s for runaway slaves.

But how meaningful is it to say you’re sorry after all these years?

“I think apologies are absurd,” said Professor Eric Foner. “They're a substitute for action. People should only apologize for things they did. Tony Blair apologized for Irish famine. Clinton wanted to apologize for slavery.”

He continued, “This is psychopolitics. I have no problem with people apologizing. I don't want them to think they've actually done something by apologizing.”

But Farmer-Paellmann sees the apologies as a step in the right direction.

“How do you move forward if you’ve done wrong to someone, and you don’t even apologize?” she said. “It’s somewhere to start.”

The first pleas for slavery reparations came over 100 years ago. In the 1890s, former slaves agitated for federal pensions. Petitions were sent to Washington, D.C., but nothing came of them. Then and now, reparations activists have hit up against a wall of government bureaucracy.

For 12 years, Rep. John Conyers has proposed legislation to examine the impact of slavery on African-Americans today. But Conyers’ bill has yet to be passed.

Last October, the California state legislature passed a bill requiring insurance companies to disclose whether they wrote policies insuring slaves.

This February, in commemoration of Black History Month, activists gathered at a conference in Nashville to call for free university tuition, free medical care, and no taxes for all African-Americans for the next 50 years.

Whether it’s corporate payments, legislation, or special social programs, the question is: are any of these proposals feasible?

“It surprises me,” said Foner, “that reparations has gotten as much publicity as it has. I think politically speaking, it’s unlikely to get anywhere.”

But nothing will stop some activists. They are moving ahead with class action lawsuits.

In her pursuit of centuries-overdue justice, Farmer-Paellmann has joined the Reparations Assessment Group, a team of high-profile attorneys developing a “dream team” to formulate a class action lawsuit.

Attorney Johnnie Cochran, famous for defending O.J. Simpson in the criminal trial, is one of the group’s founding members. Other members include Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, Dennis Sweet, who wrapped up a $400 million settlement in the “phen-fen” case, and Richard Pires, who negotiated a $1 billion settlement with the U.S. government on behalf of black farmers who were denied loans.

“What we’d like to do,” explained Cochran, “is to fashion the strategy to come up with the remedy to resolve this issue, probably in a lawsuit. That’s the best way we know how.”

The remedy may be in the form of money, but that is not the only issue.

Ultimately, Farmer-Paellmann wants to see change in how blacks are treated today. Growing up in Brooklyn on public assistance, she was first hurt by racism in the early seventies when she was 7 years old.

“Looking out the window,” she recalled, “we saw one of the groups of white kids throw a can at us and start calling us ‘Nigger.’ We were like, ‘Wow, people still say this.’ ”

Initially, Farmer-Paellmann’s husband thought she was paranoid about being black.

“I’ll send him into the store and have him find out,” she said, “Is it really true that these people are treating me differently?”

Farmer-Paellmann continued, “He often gets completely different treatment from what I get. Life for a white man in America is as nice as I thought.”

Cochran also downplayed money as the sole motivating factor in developing a class action lawsuit on behalf of slave descendants.

“This is not about 40 acres and an SUV for everybody who is a descendant of slaves,” Cochran said. “It’s about trying to address a wrong and trying to work on a remedy that would be fair to all parties.”

The institution of slavery, he maintains, allowed for much of America’s economic advancement at the time.

“Everybody is ahead because of slavery,” Cochran said. “Except for descendants of slaves and that’s why we have this yawning economic gap and this yawning educational gap.”

But Foner remains skeptical.

“Until there’s a political will to confront enduring consequences of history,” Foner said, “you’re not going to have reparations and you’re not going to have social policies to deal with enduring legacies.”

Even so, Foner sees value in a public discourse on the topic of reparations.

“Discussing reparations does have the benefit,” he said, “of raising consciousness of racial problems and their roots in slavery. To that extent, it’s all to the good.”

For Farmer-Paellmann, the pervasive legacy of slavery is what motivates her to keep fighting for reparations.

Ten years ago, she organized a protest to preserve an African burial ground that had been discovered near City Hall. Slaves were buried there during the 1700s.

She draws inspiration from this place. “These people lived and died and they didn’t make any money?” she said. “I have to see to it that their legacy is respected.”

Farmer-Paellmann feels a kinship with the Japanese-Americans and Jewish Holocaust survivors who have been compensated for their suffering. She says she wants the same.

“We’re not the only descendants that are demanding restitution,” she said. “We’re the only ones being denied our humanity.”

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