Deadria Farmer-Paellmann claims that Bank of America’s predecessor, Providence Bank of Rhode Island, benefited financially from the slave trade and she’s calling for students, universities and others to divest from the bank and its holdings.
For decades, Farmer-Paellmann has been digging and finding evidence tying corporate America to pre-Civil War slavery. She exposed corporate complicity in slavery and helped popularize the movement for reparations for slavery. Through her research, Farmer-Paellmann found evidence that makes Bank of America (BofA) complicit, she said.
Farmer-Paellmann is the founder and executive director of the Restitution Study Group, a nonprofit formed in 2000 to secure reparations and restitution from corporations complicit in the antebellum enslavement of Africans. The organization wants to create a community trust fund managed by Black business and community leaders to invest in efforts to repair the economic, educational, and health disparities for descendants of enslaved Africans.
Farmer-Paellmann says her team has uncovered research documents that show numerous slave ships listing slave traders who paid tariffs, duties, and fees to Providence Bank of Rhode Island. The bank, she says, waived the customs duties, fees, and tariffs until the slave ships returned from their voyages — a method of financing slave trading.
“While this alone is egregious enough, the matter is worse due to the fact that the slave traders were trading in violation of Rhode Island and the United States laws prohibiting the slave trade,” Farmer-Paellmann wrote in a letter to Bank of America. Since the bank was violating the law, she says, it should have paid fines per person enslaved and per slaveship. It is these fines that Farmer-Paellmann now wants to collect and put into a trust as a form of reparations.
Every slave trade ship in Rhode Island had to go through U.S. customs to come and go with its slave cargo, and Providence Bank of Rhode Island was the only bank U.S. customs did business with in the state. “All slave traders necessarily did their slave trading through the bank. We have documents verifying this,” Farmer-Paellmann told The Moguldom Nation.
One of the founders of Providence Bank was John Brown, a prominent businessman and slave trader.
The documents Farmer-Paellmann found revealed that Providence Bank had many shareholders who were slave traders. The bank’s founder, Brown, was a vocal advocate for slave trading and was engaged in the trade “before, during, and after he founded” the bank, she said.
“So the bank knew they were engaged in the trading through the bank. They should have been fined per person enslaved and per ship. They used violence to intimidate any actions against them. The bank was never held accountable for its role. We demand that they pay the fines now. The fines for a fraction of the illegal enslavement amount to over $35 billion today,” Farmer-Paellmann told The Moguldom Nation.
BofA is not the only bank Farmer-Paellmann is going after for reparations. She tried and failed in court in 2002 to get FleetBoston Financial Corp and a number of other financial institutions to pay for their alleged ties to the slave trade. Others named in the lawsuit included J.P. Morgan Chase; insurers New York Life, Aetna and AIG; investment banks Lehman Bros. and Brown Bros. Harriman; railroads CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific; cigarette makers Brown & Williamson; Loews and Liggett Group. A federal court in Chicago rejected the lawsuit, saying among other things that the statute of limitations had run out since the alleged crimes took place in 1865.
The plaintiffs were “trying to assert the legal rights of their ancestors” without proving they had been injured by any of the companies they sued, said U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle. Norgle ruled that the plaintiffs could file an amended lawsuit. Farmer-Paellmann did so against Aetna in 2006 that was successful.
FleetBoston became part of Bank of America in 2003.
Many U.S. corporations and institutions are addressing their activity in the slave trade and have offered various forms of reparations.
For example, Georgetown University, a Jesuit university, made reparations efforts to atone for the local Jesuits who sold 272 slaves in the 1800s to settle the school’s debts, AP reported. The school plans sometime this year to award grants from a new $400,000-a-year fund for community-based projects benefiting descendants of slaves. The university also launched a $1 billion “racial reconciliation” foundation by the Jesuit order that founded the university.
A century ago, banks were among the corporations that helped finance the slave trade. In recent years, banks have been guilty of denying loans to Black would-be homeowner applicants and discriminating against Black entrepreneurs seeking startup funds, according to a The New York Times op-ed by leaders at PolicyLink, a nonprofit that researches solutions for economic inequality.
“Banks and all corporations must use their outsize power to end systemic racism, move the nation toward racial and economic equity, and drive significant change in policy,” PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee wrote.
Many activists have been pushing for banks to make amends for the slave trade and discriminatory practices that followed. BofA has not only been in the sights of Farmer-Paellmann but others too. In Florida, the Uhuru Solidarity Movement has demanded that BofA pay reparations for its historic role in perpetuating inequality against Black residents in that state. The demands were not met.
BofA has been forced to pay for past racial discrimination. In 2013 it paid $2.2 million in back pay to Black job applicants after the Department of Labor found evidence of racist hiring practices, Business Insider reported.
But on the issue of reparations for slavery, the bank doesn’t seem to be budging. It is relying on a report it commissioned almost 20 years ago that found BofA innocent of making money from the slave trade.
Bill Halldin, a BofA spokesperson, told The Moguldom Nation that BofA already addressed the issue long ago. He presented a 2005 report written by Bank of America for Heritage Research Center in which then-Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis with this statement. “The institution of slavery left an indelible and shameful mark on our nation’s history, and we regret any actions our predecessors may have taken that supported or tolerated the institution of slavery in America.”
Heritage Research Center hires professional historians and document management experts who specialize in conducting archival, government, library, database, and online research.
The report was done in response to a 2003 Chicago ordinance that required companies doing business with the city to detail past profits from slavery. BofA hired Heritage to conduct the report which it submitted to Chicago City Hall in 2005 in an effort to prove its predecessor institutions did not profit from slavery. BofA admitted that some had done business with slave owners. Heritage searched public records relating to 63 Bank of America predecessor institutions between 1784, the earliest charter, and the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The report, dated Aug. 4, 2005, identified the following transactions as constituting investments or generating a profit concerning slavery: acquisition and/or ownership of slaves, by any means, sale of slaves, mortgages, or liens secured with slaves as a collateral investment in transatlantic slave voyages or ownership of enterprises utilizing slave labor insurance of slaves or slave-trading expeditions.
Heritage wrote that it did not recognize personal ownership of slaves or personal investments by Providence Bank of Rhode Island bank officers, directors, or shareholders as attaching to a bank’s activities.
Heritage did suggest that money invested in a bank by individuals could have been derived from the slave trade, but it opined that this did not constitute an investment on behalf of a bank, nor did it generate a profit to a bank. It pointed out that the documentation from money deposited never listed the slave trade as the source of the funds.
But Farmer-Paellmann said the evidence is there. In her letter to the bank, she challenged the Heritage report. She wrote, “We have uncovered documents that evidence fraudulent information in your Slavery Era Disclosure reports submitted to numerous municipalities around the United States. In particular, your reports exclude critical information about illegal slave trading voyages your predecessor bank, the Providence Bank of Rhode Island, helped to finance in their capacity as exclusive bank for United States Customs in the 1700s and 1800s.”
She added that BofA’s predecessor made money by aiding and abetting Rhode Island slave traders in enslaving Africans and avoided paying these fines in the 1700s and 1800s because its shareholders were active in slave trading. “Today, the value of those fines, for just the fraction of the primary records we found, exceeds $35 billion,” she wrote.
Confronting BofA for its connection to the slave trade and how its predecessor gained wealth from those activities is part of Farmer-Paellmann’s mission for reparations for the descendants of American slavery.
In 2002, she gained media attention for a lawsuit that demanded reparations for the descendants of American slaves, based on the premise that several U.S. corporations had profited from the practice of slavery before the Civil War of 1861-1865. Named in the suit was Aetna, the largest insurer in the U.S, along with a financial corporation and a railroad.
Farmer-Paellmann’s research linked various blue-chip corporations to the slave trade and led to them making a $20 million payment to the African American community in 2005.
In 2006, the court decided in her favor in a case against slave-trade corporations for consumer fraud. Farmer-Paellmann’s litigation strategy resulted in the first reparations court victory of its kind in U.S. history.
Farmer-Paellmann is continuing her efforts against BofA to help right past wrongs. “The effort has never stopped. It’s been continuous since 2000 when I exposed the first complicit company on my list – Aetna Inc. Since the George Floyd murder, the nation has begun to pay more attention to the various vestiges of slavery and the demand for reparations is being validated.”
She wants to push BofA to agree to finance a trust fund operated by her Restitution Study Group, along with financial and grassroots leaders of the group’s choosing.
“The ultimate goal is full repair–a trust fund and programs to undo the disadvantages descendants of enslaved Africans suffer under due to 246 years of enslavement of our ancestors. No other group endured that hardship in this nation. Then we had another 100 years of Black codes and Jim Crow. We are still struggling with voter suppression. All due to our ancestors being stolen from Africa and forced to slave in this nation.
“We want what has been stolen from us,” she said.
Farmer-Paellmann said she was surprised by BofA’s response. “They have become comfortable and callous with their unaccountability,” she said. “What’s needed is a divestment effort. Students have the power to demand their universities divest from Banks like Bank of America and all other tainted banks who refuse to pay their slavery debts.”
There has been a slow move toward reparations on the local government level and some intuitions. “The work I did planted seeds laying a foundation for the progress we see in the movement today,” Farmer-Paellmann said. “Learning about specific existing corporations and the roles they played in antebellum slavery helped to popularize the movement. Most folks know about the companies today but don’t realize the information came from my institute and me.”
With some pressure from Black voters, Farmer-Paellmann said she thinks a federal reparations program is on the way. “I believe there will be a federal reparations program, but only if we use our votes as leverage. Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Farmer-Paellmann called out the decision by the U.S. to skip a recent United Nations conference on race and reparations over concerns about anti-Israel sentiment. “It was the responsibility of this nation to show up just as Black voters showed up in 2020 and changed the leadership of this nation,” she said. “We are not sleeping these slights. 2022 is around the corner. If the leadership does not step up on our behalf, Black voters will lose hope.”
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Reparations remain a vital issue, Farmer-Paellmann said.
“Reparations are needed to repair the unique injuries descendants of enslaved Africans suffer from as a result of our ancestors being enslaved in this nation. We suffer from the vestiges of this enslavement. We are generally stigmatized and subjected to prejudice based on our race because there is an immediate assumption of inferiority due to the status our ancestors had in this nation. So with jobs, educational opportunities, housing, and even health care, we are presumed to be unworthy, untrustworthy, guilty, all that is negative. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, we are believed to be the less deserving and less qualified. That’s the legacy we carry from the enslavement of our ancestors.”
Farmer-Paellmann remains adamant that companies that benefited from slavery should be held accountable and pay financially.
“Companies that grew wealth off enslaving us are still around investing the money they earned engaged in that notorious trade. They are unjustly enriched and the laws of equity require that that wealth be disgorged and given to the proper heirs — the descendants of the victims of the crime of enslavement,” Farmer-Paellmann said.