Friday, June 27, 2008
The Big Payback
How reparations activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann turned a one-woman campaign into a triumphant national movement
by KEMBA J. DUNHAM
Growing up in Brooklyn, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann listened to her grandfather wax poetic about how African-Americans deserved their 40 acres and a mule to make up for centuries of enslavement. Now she’s fighting to see that we finally get paid in full. For the past seven years, the 41-year-old reparations advocate has taken on some of America’s biggest corporations by proving that they profited—and continue to reap rewards—off the back of slave labor. In her latest move to get restitution, Farmer-Paellmann is serving as the lead plaintiff in a case against companies that allegedly made money from slavery. The landmark proceeding, which names 17 businesses, including Aetna and Bank of America, is currently up for review on the United States Supreme Court’s docket.
"Her strategy of going after the private sector is absolutely imaginative and creative," says Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "She is at the vanguard of the movement to try to get reparations taken seriously."
With a string of victories already under her belt, Farmer-Paellmann certainly has people sitting up and taking note. Along with other advocates, she has compelled businesses, such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Wachovia, to apologize for their role in slavery and to shell out millions to organizations like the NAACP and Howard University. She’s also triggered the passage of slavery disclosure laws around the country, forcing companies to fess up to their links to the slave trade.
"It is unreasonable for companies to keep wealth they acquired by stealing people, torturing laborers to work without compensation, and brutalizing those who resisted," she argues. “They must atone by paying restitution." Her current lawsuit demands a humanitarian trust fund be set up to benefit the descendants of slaves instead of individual payouts. "We need this capital for economic development, affordable housing, educational opportunities and health care," she says. "As a community we suffer in all these areas as a direct result of slavery."
The toilsome reparations fight became a passion for Farmer- Paellmann during law school, when she chose the controversial topic as the focus of a project. It became her full-time mission during her pregnancy with daughter Sabina in 1999.
Prepping for her battle has been far from easy. Farmer-Paellmann went through the laborious process of getting a list of present-day companies that existed in some form before 1865 and calling them, one by one, to grill them about past practices. Her enterprise is largely self-funded, and she relies on donations from family and friends and personal savings to forge ahead, despite naysayers who argue that the reparations fight is futile.
But Farmer-Paellmann says her progress speaks for itself. "We’ve won historic victories, and we got companies to pay $20 million," she says, referencing payments made by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America and Wachovia to Howard University and the NAACP and several other organizations. "If detractors were aware of these things, they would be a bit more optimistic."