Should Companies Pay Reparations For Slavery?

Written by Ann Brown
As the reparations debate continues to heat up, a growing number of companies and universities are doing something about it. Should companies pay reparations for slavery? Image: Inspection and sale of a negro Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a17639 Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-15392 (b&w film copy neg.) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

As the debate over reparations heats up, some of the first institutions to act on the issue have been companies and universities. This brings up a number of questions: Should companies pay reparations for slavery? What is the legal position when it comes to slavery reparations for corporations?

In his controversial bestseller, “The Debt” (2000), Randall Robinson wrote of the debt corporate America owes to the descendants of slaves. However, very little has been repaid in the U.S. or in other countries by companies involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade or that benefitted from it.

Two major British businesses have said they will make undisclosed payments to Black and minority ethnic groups to atone for their past owners’ involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, The National Interest reported. The companies — pub group Greene King and famed insurance broker Lloyd’s of London — have both apologized for what they call “inexcusable” actions and “indefensible wrongdoing.”

The payments by Greene King and Lloyd’s of London are not considered reparations in the legal sense.

Their offer of reparations came soon after the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for countries to admit their past involvement in colonialism and slavery and to make reparations. 

“Reparations for slavery have been demanded for centuries for African American, British Caribbean, and Caribbean peoples. In 2001, the UN Durban World Conference against Racism recommended reparations for racism, but the momentum was lost as these debates were quickly overtaken by 9/11 and the war on terror,” The National Interest reported.

Over the past 20 years, a number of corporations have paid reparations for their involvement in historic violations such as the Holocaust. Now there is a move to pay reparations for slavery and racism.

For years, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has been asking for collective and moral reparations from the European former colonial powers “for the continuing harm felt by its 15 member states from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, colonialism, and indigenous genocide.”

New research is shining a spotlight on various companies that have benefited from slavery in the past. Among them, U.K. banks HSBC, Barclays, and Royal Bank of Scotland, and U.S. companies JP Morgan, Bank of America, and the clothing retailer Brooks Brothers.

Several U.S. colleges have issued various forms of reparations. Georgetown University and two theological seminaries announced funding commitments to benefit descendants of the enslaved people who were sold or worked to benefit the institutions, AP reported.

JP Morgan in 2005 set up a scholarship fund and apologized for the involvement of its predecessor companies in slavery. A legal case seeking reparations from the bank and other insurance companies then fell apart in 2006.

A 2006 lawsuit in a federal courthouse in Chicago argued that insurance companies that befitted from the slave trade in the U.S. owed reparations.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Edward Fagan explained to the court, “The issue is, should companies be allowed to retain profits that they made from illegal activities, unlawful activities, and never account for those profits and never give back to the affected communities?”

Attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann has emerged as the leading investigator and cataloger of U.S. firms whose corporate ancestors, as alleged in the Chicago case, profited from the slave trade, ABC News reported at the time.

“I made a call to Aetna Inc. and I asked them for copies of slave policies,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “They were very happy to send a couple of policies. Not only did they send the policies, though. They sent copies of circulars that other companies used to advertise their slave policies. And when I got the package, I just cried, you know. I was just really very moved by the whole thing — that a major corporation that we know and use today played a role in this practice.”

She added, “The slave policies actually financed the enslavement of Africans. So, an individual who might be uncertain about investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the purchasing of humans might get the go-ahead from Aetna. You know: ‘Go ahead, buy that person. If they die, we’ve got you covered. You can buy another one.’”

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While the lawsuit fell apart years ago, Farmer-Paellmann and others continue today to compile a growing list of U.S. companies they say profited from the crime of slavery in various ways. Among them: Brown Brothers Harriman, today one of the oldest and largest private U.S. banking firms; and Providence Bank, which grew and merged its way into a large corporation that is now called Fleet Boston.

Farmer-Paellmann and other reparations advocates still hope the list will be put to use.