While we like to celebrate Canada's virtue vis à vis runaway slaves -- Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman and all that -- a civil suit for reparations launched by African-American slave descendants that's getting under way in Illinois this week is naming none other than Canadian National Railways, among other companies.
While CNR reps fervently deny that the taint of slavery stains their company, historians concur that virtually every rail line built east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon Line before the Civil War was constructed or run at least partly by slaves "rented" from their "owners."
Foremost in tracking and understanding that relationship is Theodore Kornweibel, a professor of African-American history at San Diego State University.
Of the 94 early rail lines that used slaves, about seven, according to his published research, were later inherited by CN. "It may be a few less," he says, since CN sold off a couple of shorter lines in the Deep South. He scoffs at a CN spokesperson's suggestion that none of CN's lines, either past or present, bears the stink of slavery.
CN comes by this most embarrassing situation by way of Illinois Central, a line that absorbed Gulf, Mobile & Ohio in 1972 to become Illinois Central Gulf. CN acquired Illinois Central in 1999.
Data from the 1860 U.S. Census Bureau culled by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) reveals that 70 slaves were "held" by Abbott & Co in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Not unique in and of itself, except it was noted that "these Negroes are employed on that division of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad," a company that was incorporated in 1848 and absorbed by Gulf, Mobile & Ohio in 1940.
Further, 1865 records show that Mobile & Ohio pegged at $2.2 million in today's dollars the value of slaves lost to the Civil War and emancipation.
Besides the suit in Illinois, CN also finds itself named in reparations suits in Louisiana, Texas and California.
It's not a matter the company is eager to talk about. The Canadian-based firm's New Orleans lawyers declined to comment. CN's Chicago-based spokesperson, Jack Burke, denies up and down that the company, or any of its predecessors, profited from slave labour.
"We have been presented with no documentation showing that we profited, that there was any profit from slave labour," he says. "If there was a predecessor railroad called the Mobile & Ohio, I'm not aware of it."
All this, ironically enough, while CN boasts in the "historical highlights" section of its Web site that in 1853 its Illinois Central predecessor retained Abraham Lincoln as one of its lawyers, and that he continued to represent the railroad until 1860.
A scant two years later, Lincoln signed off on a law that ended slavery in the District of Columbia and paid recompense to former slave owners.***
The wealth of many top U.S. corporations can be traced directly to slavery. Slave-grown cotton made up 60 to 80 per cent of U.S. exports for a fair chunk of the 19th century.In his book Race And Reparations, retired University of Guelph professor emeritus Clarence J. Munford puts the value of slave labour in the U.S. at $97 trillion. The numbers for the Canadian slave legacy aren't so easily found.
The National Library of Canada says, "Black slaves were brought to Canada as early as 1608."
While some organizations date slavery in Lower Canada to 1628, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia indicates that Canadian slavery took root there in 1689 through a mandate of Louis XIV, who made it permissible for colonists to "avail themselves of the services of African slaves." By 1770, the press in Nova Scotia wasn't shy about printing ads for a "well-made Negro boy" or "an able Negro wench."
From Nova Scotia comes the legacy of what may be Canada's dirtiest little racialist secret, Africville, where all discourse on the Canadian case for reparation to blacks often begins.
But nowadays the Canadian call for reparations is more a dull moan than a roar.
Several who spoke specifically about reparations at the Second African Canadian Preparatory Conference for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in 2001 declined to comment for this story.
The Africville Genealogy Society has filed suit against the Halifax Regional Municipality on behalf of the families forcibly "relocated" from there in the 1960s. Halifax mayor Peter Kelly grants that an "undisclosed settlement" has been offered but not responded to. Apparently, the city's offer is a mere pittance compared to the $10 million being sought in the suit.
But Africville Genealogy Society president Irvine Carvery and lawyer Burnley "Rocky" Jones, who is close to the cause, did not return calls requesting comment. Certainly, there has been a long-standing debate in Canada's black community about how to frame the reparations issue.
Ontario Black History Society president Rosemary Sadlier represents the view that a reparations solution needs to be about collective enhancement.
"Reparations is not just about Africville," she says. "It's about all Canadian people of African origin and the lost opportunities over generations. An amount of money for every person (a position expressed by some) isn't appropriate or meaningful right now. What I'd support is a significant amount to create and support the Canadian Museum of African-Canadian History, so there is some sort of symbolic yet concrete acknowledgement of what African peoples did to help develop this country."***
The first footprint on the long and foggy road to reparations was stomped down in 2000 by a scrappy New York lawyer and reparations activist, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann. After years of solo guerrilla research, she came up with irrefutable evidence that mega-insurer Aetna had routinely insured the lives of slaves, as they would have any livestock or inanimate object, on behalf of slaveholders.The California legislature confirmed that her documentation provides "the first evidence of ill-gotten profits from slavery, which profits in part capitalized insurers whose successors remain in existence today."
From Aaron to Zach, the 29-page alphabetical listing (mostly by first names only) of "insured" slaves is somewhat appalling yet strangely alluring to peruse.
The insurance industry is far from the only one with slave blood on its hands. When Farmer-Paellmann filed her original suit on March 26, 2002, in Brooklyn, the defendants named included FleetBoston Financial Corporation, railway CSX and any "predecessors, successors and/or assigns" thereof.
The gist of the suit is that the companies "conspired with slave traders, with each other and other entities and institutions to knowingly facilitate crimes against humanity, and to further illicitly profit from slave labour."
In October 2002, Chicago city council put through the Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, requiring companies doing business there to come clean on past "investments or profits from the slave industry."
In 2000, Chicago mayor Richard Daley got behind a city council resolution for the U.S. government to make reparations for slavery, a cause U.S. Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has been needling Congress to take up for the last 10 years.
Yet another reparations perspective is waiting in the wings, that of Johnnie Cochran, the renowned defence attorney who's himself of slave lineage. He's working with a high-powered group of American lawyers and academics often referred to as the Reparations Coordinating Committee.
Of the Farmer-Paellmann suit and others aimed at corporations, Cochran says, "We have no quarrel with them. We just see things a little differently."
Cochran's group is taking its case directly to Uncle Sam, seeking "government acknowledgement and something from an educational standpoint for the people that are bottom-stuck and need an assist educationally."
He isn't saying, however, where the suit will be filed. "I can't tell you that, but I think you'll be surprised." email@example.com