WASHINGTON - A class-action lawsuit filed by some 35 million descendants of black slaves against three companies with ties to the slave trade is aimed as much at shaking up U.S. society as at winning financial returns, say lawyers and observers.
On Tuesday the descendants sued the corporations for unspecified damages in a US federal court. The action is the first of what is expected to be a rash of reparations-related lawsuits that have been prepared over the last several years.
All of the cases appear designed not only to win monetary damages for the descendants of slaves, but also to provoke greater public debate and recognition of the history and pervasive effects of slavery on US society in general, and black citizens in particular.
''All of these suits are going to create controversy,'' said Salih Booker, director of Africa Action, an advocacy group here. ''The fact that they will encourage more discussion about slavery and its impact is as valuable as the cases themselves.''
One group, called 'N'COBRA', which has been mobilizing African- Americans from the southern part of the United States, is expected to file lawsuits over the next year, while another project, the Reparations Assessment Group (RAG) has spent 18 months preparing a class action suit.
RAG is headed by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and the lead attorney in the O.J. Simpson murder case, Johnny Cochran. ''We will be seeking more than just monetary compensation,'' Ogletree told journalists when he began his research in 2000.
''We want a change in America. We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own.''
The suit filed Tuesday by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a young African-American attorney, names the US largest insurance company, Aetna, a major banking firm, FleetBoston, and CSX, a Virginia-based railroad company. Aetna and CSX said they would fight the lawsuits and expected to prevail.
''We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however, regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago,'' an Aetna spokesman said, noting the company issued an apology for its role in the slave trade two years ago when Farmer-Paellmann brought the issue to its attention.
''The practice of slavery constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty and African citizenship rights (and) cultural heritage and it further deprived them of the fruits of their own labor,'' the lawsuit stated.
The suit asks that any reward be placed in a fund to improve social, health, and education opportunities for African-Americans.
Farmer-Paellmann and other attorneys working on the case said as many as 100 other major US corporations, including other insurance, banking and textile companies, will be sued in coming days.
''This is a case about wealth built on the back and from the sweat of African slaves,'' said one of the lead attorneys, Roger Wareham, who has been involved for several years in mobilizing African-Americans. ''We expect those companies that are targeted to stand up.''
The lawsuit is based on precedents established in cases brought on behalf of Japanese-Americans detained after Tokyo's attack on Pearl Harbor, and Jewish and other survivors of Nazi atrocities. Associated with RAG are a number of lawyers involved in the Holocaust lawsuits, which netted some eight billion dollars for the plaintiffs.
But both those cases concerned plaintiffs who were still living when the lawsuits were filed, a point on which the defendants are expected to focus their attack.
Along with Farmer-Paellmann, two other plaintiffs, 91-year-old Mary Lacey-Madison and Andre Carrington, 40, can prove their descent from slaves.
The first African slaves arrived in what is now the United States in 1619, and the practice spread rapidly, particularly in the south, where the topography favored plantation agriculture. Some eight million African slaves were brought to the territory before slavery was abolished in 1865.
Freed slaves were promised ''40 acres and a mule," as well as protection from US troops and courts of law. But the vast majority of former slaves had to fend for themselves, which became especially risky after federal troops were withdrawn from the southern states only 12 years after emancipation. Many blacks became sharecroppers, victims of debt bondage and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan.
While slavery is normally associated with the southern states, it also existed in the north until the abolition movement gained momentum in the early 1800s. Many northern-based companies, including the ones sued on Tuesday, benefited from slavery and slave-trading. In her research, Farmer-Paellmann found documents about several of those companies and their owners. Some firms have evolved into giants of US capitalism.
For example, John Brown, founder of Providence Bank, the predecessor of FleetBoston, owned slave ships and was even prosecuted in federal court for participating in the slave trade after the US Congress had outlawed it.
Aetna insured slave owners against the loss of their slaves. Farmer-Paellmann found riders on their policies which made it clear that it would not pay the premium on slaves who were lynched, worked to death, or committed suicide.
CSX was named as a defendant because predecessor railroad lines were ''constructed or run, at least in part, by slave labor''.
CSX issued a statement Wednesday, saying ''it is an unfortunate misuse of the legal system to attempt to address issues well over a century old at the expense of today's workers and stockholders''.
Copyright 2002 IPS