Lawsuit maintains slavery extended past plantations
Action on behalf of descendants claims
companies profited unfairly`
By JEFF DONN
BOSTON -- Imagine slavery, and you'll likely picture black workers
over rows of cotton in the South.
Yet lawyers who recently filed a federal lawsuit seeking corporate
reparations for slavery named three companies far removed from farming,
of them based in New England.
The lawyers, suing on behalf of millions of slave descendants, may
eventually name more than 1,000 companies.
But the initial defendants are FleetBoston Financial Corp., of Boston;
insurer Aetna, of Hartford, Conn., and railway operator CSX Corp.,
How can this be?
Historians say the lawsuit, whatever its merits, serves as a reminder
slavery also extended into the Northern economy and, in the Old South,
touched many industries beyond the plantations.
Lawyers for slave descendants picked FleetBoston because Rhode Island
trader John Brown was a founder of its 18th century predecessor, Providence
The bank financed Brown's slave voyages and profited from them, the
Brown was born in 1736 into an influential merchant family with holdings
that would eventually extend into salt, meat, lumber, bricks, iron
He helped charter what became Brown University (though it is named for
nephew, Nicholas Brown Jr.).
John Brown owned or co-owned at least six ships with inspirational names
like the Hope and the Providence, according to Rachel Chernos Lin,
University graduate student researching the history of the area's slave
Brown's boats would load up with local rum, sell it in West Africa,
slaves, sell them in the Caribbean or the South, and often fill up
sugar or molasses for the journey home. They would carry 200 slaves
on a trip.
Other local merchants did the same sort of trade, but it didn't always
unchallenged. Brown's own brother, Moses, was an ardent abolitionist.
He helped the Abolition Society successfully sue his brother under the
Slave Trade Act of 1794, an early anti-slavery law that banned outfitting
ships to carry slaves.
John Brown had to forfeit the Hope, according to Jay Coughtry, a historian
at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
From 1709 to 1807, Rhode Island merchants invested in more than 930
trips to Africa, Coughtry estimates. They wrested more than 105,000
from their homeland.
Brown eventually dropped that kind of business -- "not because it was
immoral, but because it wasn't profitable," says Norman Fiering, a
administrator at Brown University.
FleetBoston has declined comment.
CSX wants the lawsuit thrown out. In a statement, the rail line said
impacts of slavery "cannot be attributed to any single company or industry."
Railway historians say slaves virtually built the rail network of the
from the 1830s to the 1850s.
Of nearly 120 railroads, at least 90 -- and probably more -- used slave
labor for construction, maintenance or other jobs, says historian Ted
Kornweibel at San Diego State University.
In the peak years before the Civil War, he says, about 15,000 slaves
annually for Southern railroads.
The companies that eventually folded into CSX are no exception.
At least 37 of them used slave labor, Kornweibel says, based on his
research. Sometimes they owned the slaves; sometimes they rented them
seasonal surpluses at plantations.
A contract signed Feb. 12, 1862, is typical. P.V. Daniel Jr., president
CSX's Virginia predecessor, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac
promised to pay $160 to Mrs. B.B. Wright.
Her two rented slaves were identified only as John Henry and Reuben.
were to be returned clothed as when they arrived.
Some years, individual slaves, often worth more than $1,000 in a sale,
up to $200 to rent for a season.
Some railroad contracts of that era specified that they must be properly
fed. If a rented slave ran away, the owner often paid for lost job
Slaves remained valuable economic commodities into the Civil War years.
Insurers, including Aetna, began selling a new product, life insurance,
compensate owners for the loss of slaves.
In its response to the reparations lawsuit, Aetna said the "events --
however regrettable -- occurred hundreds of years ago" and "in no way
reflect Aetna today."
Still, the company, founded in 1853, has acknowledged that it holds
of five Aetna life insurance policies on slaves and knows of at least
others. Together, they insured the lives of 16 slaves in Virginia and
Carolina. In one policy, a slave was identified simply as "James, 23,
The slave owners who took out the policies agreed to pay $5 to $10 for
term of one-to-three months, perhaps to insure against loss during
planting season. "From their perspective at the time, they really needed
that labor," says Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.
Plantation owners mostly sought out such policies, beginning the business
with other insurance companies in the 1840s. Sometimes railroads, canal
builders, and others with dangerous work also insured the lives of
"Slaves were involved in almost all aspects of Southern industries,"
historian Charles Dew, at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass.
As with some policies today, the insured person had to be healthy. Slaves
were rejected for coverage for such reasons as a hernia or simply being
"unsound," according to Todd Savitt, a historian at East Carolina
University, in Greenville, N.C.
In a review of 1,693 life policies for slaves in 1856, Savitt calculated
average payout on death at $665. The average payout on 500 policies
whites during the same period was $3,500.