Slavery in the dock

Five large US enterprises are accused of having practised, and profited from, slavery, before the American Civil War in 1865. The prosecution seeks reparations for the descendants of the slaves.

The five companies are the financials Chase Manhattan and FleetBoston Financial group, and three insurance companies, New York Life, Aetna and AIG. However, an avalanche could follow suit, including foreign companies which have (even unknowingly) bought positions in US companies involved in slavery before the Civil War.

Previous attempts to take the Federal Government to court over the same issue failed but this is the first time that firms have been sued. The evidence being used by the plaintiffs are documents which point towards the actual purchase of slaves, financing slave purchase, insuring ships in which slaves were transported, selling products used by slave labour, and profiting from the slave trade.

Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and author and human rights activist, Randall Robinson, are leading the movement, called Reparations Coordination Committee. They have joined some of America’s most brilliant barristers behind the cause.

However, their cause will be difficult to present: all the people involved are now dead, slavery was not illegal at the time of the acts being brought before the court, and normally, cases of crimes not resolved after 30 years are considered closed.

The position of AIG is typical of a company against which the accusations are extremely tenuous: It was founded in 1948, but is involved in the process because it bought American General in August, 2001, which in turn had bought US Life Insurance in 1997. This company was involved in business which included acts connected with the slave trade.


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