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Slave Descendants to File Suit in Texas By: R.G. Ratcliff
HoustonChronicle.com | Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The descendants of Texas slaves plan to file a class-action federal lawsuit today in Galveston against numerous U.S. corporations, accusing them of profiting from slavery.

Against the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr. festivities Monday in Austin, the Texas NAACP announced plans for the lawsuit against J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., WestPoint Stevens Inc., Union Pacific Railroad and 100 unnamed defendants on allegations that they profited from slavery, which the lawsuit defines as a crime against humanity.

"As far as we know, this is the first such lawsuit to be filed in the state of Texas," said NAACP Texas President Gary Bledsoe.

The lawsuit will be handled in Texas by Bledsoe; Robert Notzon, lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston.

The lawsuit is the latest of a number that have been filed in states across the South seeking payments from companies that were either directly or indirectly involved in financing slavery. Lawyers handling the case believe it will be consolidated with the other lawsuits in Chicago.

Bledsoe said the case is a reconciliation lawsuit, not a reparations lawsuit. He said a reparations lawsuit seeks payment for individuals while this lawsuit seeks to have a trust fund set up to benefit African-Americans.

That trust fund governed by a commission might make payments to individuals, he said, but its main goal will be to promote health care for African-Americans, programs to remove the vestiges of slavery and to promote racial healing.

"There wouldn't be individual awards going to individuals the way this is structured," Bledsoe said.

The issue of payments of reparations to individuals has made such lawsuits "divisive" with some in America, Bledsoe said.

Notzon said the lawsuits have a valid basis because the effects of slavery "linger on. There has been no meaningful reparation for slavery."

He said the lawsuit is being filed in Galveston because it was a center of the state's slave trade. It also was where Texas slaves first learned they were free on June 19, 1865.

The first in the series of lawsuits was filed last year against Aetna insurance and CSX railroad.

Legal experts at the time said the lawsuit was a long shot because of the amount of time that has passed since the offenses. Also, the slaves most directly impacted by slavery have all died.

Reparations cases involving Holocaust survivors and Japanese-Americans interned during World War II were successful in part because the people harmed were still living.

But German corporations hit by lawsuits for their role in the Holocaust settled for billions of dollars in part to avoid unfavorable and continuing publicity.

Notzon said the Texas lawsuit targets corporations that made money from slavery.

"We're looking for economic benefits for the labor that was stolen from them (slaves), the livelihood that was stolen from them," Notzon said.

The lawsuit claims J.P. Morgan Chase was behind a consortium that raised money to insure slaves. It says WestPoint Stevens used cotton from Southern planters. And it claims Union Pacific built railroads with slave labor.

Spokesmen for Chase and WestPoint could not be reached for comment.

Mark Davis of Union Pacific said the lawsuits target rail companies that no longer exist.

"We never did benefit from any of the alleged actions," Davis said. "The modern Union Pacific was formed in 1897. That's almost three decades after the Civil War."

Davis said the target companies were rail lines that Union Pacific bought after the Civil War and no longer exist.

"Today, we are committed to equal opportunity and some of the highest moral and ethical business standards," Davis said.

The plaintiffs in the Texas lawsuit are Julie Mae Wyatt-Kervin, 99, her son, Billy Gene McGee, and his wife, Ina Hurdle McGee.

Wyatt-Kervin's parents were slaves on the Foote plantation in Wharton County. They worked raising cotton, cane and corn.

Ina McGee, 69, is the great-granddaughter of a slave. Her great-grandfather was 10 years old when he was purchased in North Carolina to be the playmate of a boy in Daingerfield. McGee said the boy had a stutter and was shunned by other whites.

She said Holocaust survivors have been paid reparations, as have American Indians.

"The Germans got theirs. The Indians got theirs and may get more," she said. Everyone has received reparations, except African-Americans. It's our turn now."

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