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The Reparations Lobby Sues Again By: Curtis Lawrence
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 27, 2004


Many nights last week, the Rev. Hannah Jane Hurdle-Toomey lay awake, tossing and turning and thinking about her father.

Hurdle-Toomey, 71, is one of the few remaining direct descendants of an African-American slave, and in the days leading up to a Monday court hearing in which the fate of a class-action reparations lawsuit could be decided, her thoughts of Andrew Jackson Hurdle have been more frequent.

"I was wondering about how my father would feel about this whole thing, and I sensed his presence," said Hurdle-Toomey, who was 3 years old when her father died at the age of 90 in 1935, according to the lawsuit.

Hurdle-Toomey, her two older brothers, Timothy and Chester, and others are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that names more than a dozen insurance companies, freight carriers and other corporations they claim benefitted from the slave trade. The lawsuit consolidates nine reparation suits from across the country to determine whether they have standing in federal court.

The defendant corporations have asked U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle to dismiss the case on a number of grounds. Norgle could rule from the bench at a status hearing Monday or take longer to decide.

"Among our principle arguments is the fact that the claim for reparations is a purely political and not a legal issue," said Andrew McGann, one of the defense attorneys. The case "fails to state a proper legal claim, and in all events these claims are filed far, far too late."

Other critics have harsher views.

"It's a frivolous case, and in my view the judge should slap the attorneys . . . for bringing frivolous cases," said David Horowitz, a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture. "It's a waste of the court's time and the people's money."

Horowitz said gains by the reparations movement so far -- including a Chicago city ordinance pushed through by Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) requiring companies doing business with the city to disclose financial gains from the slave trade -- are the result of a campaign of intimidation.

"If this was not about African Americans, no lawyer would take the case," Horowitz said. "I think the people are intimidated by the politics of it."

Norgle is also expected to rule soon on a motion that he recuse himself because he is biased against certain class action remedies.

Plaintiffs also say that Norgle cannot be impartial because he once worked for a subsidiary of J.P. Morgan Chase and Co., one of the defendants.

Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a plaintiffs' attorney, rebuts arguments by the defendants and others that the legislative and executive branches of government, not federal court, are the correct venues for the reparations discussion.

"If the executive branch was going to take care of it, they would have," Jean-Baptiste said.

Hurdle-Toomey, who has flown in from her Downstate Belleville home for every hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building, does so at her own expense. She has received offers to cover her airfare and hotel expenses, but has turned them down because she does not want to perpetrate the notion that she and other defendants are in the case for the money.

What Hurdle-Toomey wants more than anything is "a quickening of their conscience," -- a true recognition from the defendants of why reparations are so important to many African Americans.

"Our dignity was stolen, our labor was stolen, even our dignity as a race was stolen," Hurdle-Toomey said.

Her father was born into slavery on the Hurdle plantation in North Carolina. When he was just 10 years old, he was separated from his family and sold to a plantation in Dangerfield, Texas.

"What did my father think," Hurdle-Toomey wonders on her sleepless nights. "Just being a young kid and being snatched up like that?"

When he was 16, Hurdle escaped and found his way to a Union Army camp where he made shoes for the soldiers' horses.

Hurdle eventually settled in Greenville and eventually fathered 25 children between two wives. Hurdle-Toomey is the youngest of her father's family with his second wife.

Regardless of how Norgle rules, Hurdle-Toomey and other plaintiffs and reparations activists say their fight will be far from over.

"This isn't an issue that one person can make a decision about," Hurdle-Toomey said. "As I have said before, there is a higher judge, meaning God himself. It's a struggle that continues."

Marcelle Porter, another plaintiff who lives on the Southeast Side and has attended every hearing, said that she, too, would push for reparations even if the case is dismissed.

"That will just be one more hill to climb," said Porter, whose great-grandmother Hettie Pierce was a slave on a North Carolina plantation in the 1800s and died in 1944.

When reparations activist Conrad Worrill is reminded of the challenges facing the movement, especially in federal court, he cites many court battles leading up to the 1954 landmark civil rights case, Brown vs. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

"We have to be tenacious in our resolve to continue our legal fight in the courts," said Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front based in Calumet Park.

Earlier this month, Bob Brown, a longtime Chicago-based activist, filed a separate reparations lawsuit in federal court here naming 71 defendants including Pope John Paul II, President Bush and the heads of state of England, Spain and France.

Reparations advocates say that even if the lawsuit being heard by Norgle is dismissed, more are likely to follow.

The idea is not unprecedented in American history, and Diane Sammons, another attorney for the plaintiffs, points out that Japanese-American reparations supporters suffered several courtroom defeats before the U.S. government authorized a $20,000 tax-free payment to every surviving Japanese American interned in camps during World War II.

"This is about fighting the struggle and battle in every possible forum," Sammons said.




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