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The Reparations Shakedown Heads to Court By: Curtis Lawrence and Andrew Herrmann
Chicago Sun-Times | Monday, May 05, 2003


It's nearly a 70-year-old memory, but still incredibly clear to the Rev. Hannah Jane Hurdle-Toomey: she is about 3 years old, crawling on the floor with a playmate in the parlor of her family's farm house in Greenville, Texas.

"I was peeking from behind the big fat piano," she said, recalling that chilly November day in 1935. In the next room, her 90-year-old father, Andrew Jackson Hurdle--a former slave who swore that his own children would never work for anyone--was dying.

Hurdle, who wore the marks of a slave master's whip to his grave, was a man of some success on the day of his death. He was a farmer who owned his own land. But his struggle up from slavery had been enormously hard. He never got the 40 acres and a mule some argue was promised to slaves.

Enduring myth or unpaid debt? Reparations debate rages

BY CURTIS LAWRENCE AND ANDREW HERRMANN Staff Reporters

Some reparations advocates trace their claim to 1865, when, they argue, the federal Freedmen's Bureau Act promised former slaves 40 acres. Shortly after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the act was revoked by President Andrew Johnson.

This unpaid debt to the former slaves--possibly totaling trillions of dollars--now is owed to their descendants, they say.

But writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year, North Carolina State University history Professor John David Smith called the promise "an enduring myth.''

Some former slaves did get property in Georgia and Florida, but other efforts to provide the opportunity to lease or buy land have been wrongly lumped together as a "40 acres and a mule'' promise, said Smith.

Proponents of reparations, such as U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), argue that the devastation inflicted upon African Americans by slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation.

"We have gotten far too comfortable in accepting poverty, crime and adolescent pregnancy as Black and their opposites as White," Conyers writes in Should America Pay? (Amistad), an anthology of essays on the reparations debate. "We have failed to trace the lineage of both of these economic conditions to slavery and its aftermath."

Last September, Tillman persuaded Chicago's City Council to pass an ordinance requiring companies doing business with the city to disclose any past financial benefits from the slave trade.

Shelby Steele, an African-American academic and writer, dismisses the campaign for reparations as a "childish pursuit."

"Those who fight for reparations, he argues, accept a "victim-focused, protest identity that is at once angry and needy." To support reparations is to "nurture in yourself, and pass on to your own children, a sense of aggrieved entitlement that sees black success as an impossibility without the intervention of white compassion."

Reparations are not unprecedented in American history.

In 1988, the U.S. government authorized a $20,000 tax-free payment to every surviving Japanese American interned in camps during World War II. About 80,000 collected, said Bill Yoshino, Midwest director of the Japanese American Citizens League.

At the time, President Ronald Reagan said the payments "admit a wrong'' and "reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.''

Yoshino said there is no prevailing opinion in the Japanese-American community on reparations for blacks.

Now Hurdle-Toomey, who is 71 and living in Downstate Belleville, and her two older surviving brothers, Timothy and Chester Hurdle, are fighting for their father's piece of prosperity. As part of a class-action lawsuit, they are suing more than a dozen insurance companies, freight carriers and other corporations that they claim benefitted from the slave trade. Among the firms named as defendants are Aetna, Lloyd's of London and New York Life.

With slavery ending in 1865, all slaves are dead. Living children of slaves are very rare, said renowned slavery historian Ira Berlin. But the Hurdle offspring illustrate that "slavery is not that far in our past,'' he said.

Wednesday, a judge will hear motions on the lawsuit in a federal courtroom in Chicago, chosen as a central location because the class of plaintiffs is expected to grow with suits from across the country. Nine class-action cases--from California to New York--have been merged into a single class or are seeking inclusion. The suit--laced in its written filings with descriptions of the atrocities of slavery--is managed by a team of lawyers hoping to replicate the success of Jewish families who won settlements from European Holocaust companies.

Critics of the reparations movement say the Hurdles and other plaintiffs are wasting their efforts on a long shot when African Americans should be focusing on more pressing matters such as the guns, drugs and diseases that harm black people in disproportionate numbers.

Prominent reparations opponent David Horowitz argues that the Hurdle children's efforts against these companies may ultimately take money out of the pockets of black shareholders and the suit's costs passed on to black consumers. His wrath is not so much aimed at the Hurdle family but to their lawyers. "It's a shakedown,'' Horowitz said.

But Hurdle-Toomey's lawyer, Lionel Jean-Baptiste, disagrees.

"This is the daughter of an African who was enslaved and who was sold from his mother along with [several] other children at a very young age," Jean-Baptiste said. "Hannah has joined this lawsuit in the process of rectifying the commodification of a people."

Chester Hurdle says the residual effects of slavery have been dangerous to him personally and to the entire nation collectively.

"The residual effect of slavery has affected us in so many different ways," Chester Hurdle said in the book Should America Pay, a reparations anthology edited by Raymond Winbush (Amistad).

In the book, Chester Hurdle talks of being passed over by a white fellow officer while he was a noncommissioned officer at Lakeland Air Force Base, even though he had trained the fellow officer. He says he looks at reparations as repairing a small hole in a dike.

"You're repairing something that should have been repaired many years ago," he told Winbush.

*****

In the old black-and-white photos passed along by his 25 children, Andrew Hurdle is a slender brown-skin man standing tall and dignified. In the photos, as well as in the images in Hurdle-Toomey's mind, he always wears a suit, as if it were painted on him.

Hurdle and his first wife, Viney Sanders, had 17 children together. Then in 1913, after Viney had died, Hurdle married again at the age of 65. His new wife, Jessie Catherine Bailey, was 25. They had eight children, the youngest of them being Hannah. She remembers growing up with half brothers and half sisters old enough to be her grandparents, and with a father old enough to be her great-grandfather. As a toddler, she and the other youngest children were warned not to make the slightest noise that might upset their father, who was bedridden with painful rheumatism.

But even when she did wake him, Hurdle-Toomey said, she had little to worry about. According to family lore, Andrew Hurdle cherished his baby girl so much that he allowed her to be spanked only with the straw from a broom.

"By being the last child, I had a lot more privileges than the others," she admits, still relishing her family position as the baby girl.

Because her father died when she was only 3, Hurdle-Toomey says she never really knew him. But she has soaked up every story and description of "Poppa" from older brother and sisters. "He hardly spoke above a whisper," she says, "but was highly dynamic."

*****

Born into slavery, Andrew Hurdle was just 10 years old when he was sold away from the Hurdle plantation in North Carolina. Hurdle was separated from his parents, Hannah and Steve, and five siblings, Hurdle-Toomey said. Four of his siblings were sold to the Hazel plantation in North Carolina. One brother, Henderson, ran away before the sale.

Hurdle's new owner, T.H. Turner of Dangerfield, Texas, wanted a playmate for his son James.

Berlin, author of Generation of Captivity: A History of African American Slavery (Belknap), said Hurdle's experience was common. At 10, a black boy was on the cusp of becoming a productive man.

"People were traded back and forth like playing cards,'' said Berlin.

As a boy on the Turner plantation, Hurdle spent most of his time in the house helping James overcome a stuttering problem. In turn, Hurdle was allowed to read and write, a rare privilege for slaves. But when he was about 16, a new overseer anxious to prove himself took to whipping the boy.

Hurdle eventually had enough of the beatings and, as the Civil War raged, fled for freedom.

He spent days hiding in swamps before stumbling into a Union army camp. They gave him a job making shoes for their horses. Berlin said thousands of former slaves were employed by the Union army to do menial work.

After the war, Hurdle joined up with a group of free men who walked the countryside looking for work. That took him to Greenville, just northeast of Dallas, where he met and married his first wife.

Hurdle, who had earned the respect of white men for his reputation as a hard worker, took any odd job he could and eventually was able to save enough to buy land.

He raised chickens, hogs, cows and ran a syrup mill. He and his children from both families also made shoes and bottled soda, Hurdle-Toomey said.

Her father's vision was for the family to be self-sufficient. Not only would they never be slaves, they would never work for anyone.

"He instilled in us the value of being self-sufficient and independent," Hurdle-Toomey said.

When Andrew Hurdle wasn't farming, he would take to the roads as a circuit preacher spreading the gospel in areas too poor to afford their own churches.

Hurdle passed his passion for the pulpit to his daughter. She became a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1988, 108 years after her father was ordained in the same denomination.

Hurdle-Toomey doesn't like talking about the lawsuit, initiated by her niece Ina Bell Daniels Hurdle McGee, of Dallas. But Hurdle-Toomey says money is not a motive because she has already inherited her father's best traits, including his passion for independence.

Jean-Baptiste said the concept of reparations is not incompatible with Andrew Hurdle's reputation as a self-made man.

"It is a demand for what is owned," said Jean-Baptiste, who said the plaintiffs want any settlement placed in a fund to address social issues. "It is not a request with a please attached."


Curtis Lawrence and Andrew Herrmann are staff reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times.


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