The campaign by African Americans for slavery reparations is expected to get a boost this month when Los Angeles passes a measure requiring any company doing business with the city to disclose whether it has ever profited from slavery. Los Angeles' ordinance is modeled on one passed by Chicago last October. Detroit; Cleveland, Ohio; and New York City are considering similar measures. States have moved in the same direction. California passed a law three years ago requiring insurance companies to report slavery profits (eight companies have thus far disclosed that they sold policies on 614 slaves), while Georgia and Pennsylvania are considering following suit. "There can never be any real justice until we discover this information," says L.A. councilman Nate Holden.
These efforts mark a shift in tactics. Rather than seek slavery reparations from the U.S. government--a move that has little support in Congress--advocates are taking a cue from successful compensation suits by Holocaust victims and focusing on corporations. Among the defendants are such insurance companies as Aetna; financial-services companies, including FleetBoston and J.P. Morgan Chase; and such railroad giants as CSX and Union Pacific. Although the municipal ordinances don't address reparations, they require companies to research their records to disclose whether they benefited from slavery--information that could help identify "specific targets for reparations," says Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a New York attorney leading the campaign. "Multibillion-dollar corporations are still around spending money they earned stealing people, breeding humans and torturing people."
The corporations vow they will fight any efforts to make them pay. "These suits are absurd and racially divisive," says Robert Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group. "Slavery was abhorrent. But should government contractors have to go back 140 years, spending millions on research and legal fees?" --By Margot Roosevelt