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The recent filing of federal class action litigation alleging some U.S. corporations owe reparations to the descendants of slaves because they conspired with slave traders could soon push the long-running issue of reparations to a head. Reparations for slaves, which first came up in the 1870s, are long overdue, Simon Wiltz, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said on Thursday. But Wiltz, an architect in Houston, said it’s not too late for the federal government to try to replace the wealth it owes the descendants of slaves for the crime against humanity that slavery represents. “It’s never too late to collect on a debt. If you have ever been hounded by a bill collector [you know] they will continue to hound you,” Wiltz told a crowd at a roundtable discussion at South Texas College of Law. He said it’s the wealth of the slaves and their descendants that’s been stolen. “It’s not just our labor, but the wealth we could have built over 137 years,” he noted. Wiltz was on a panel that also included Dr. Imari Obadele, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University, and Jermaine Thomas, an associate with Barnes & Turner in Houston who did research into reparations while a student at the law school. The discussion was sponsored by the Black Law Students Association. On March 26, a New York woman who is the descendant of slaves filed a class action suit in federal court in New York, alleging predecessors to a bank and insurance company and a railroad conspired with slave traders. The suit alleges the defendants were unjustly enriched because of the conspiracy and seeks an accounting, restitution, disgorgement, and unspecified actual and punitive damages. The lawyers who filed Deadria Farmer-Paellmann v. FleetBoston Financial Corp. Inc., et al. have filed two more similar suits since then, also in the Eastern District of New York. Diane Sammons, an associate with Nagel Rice Dreifuss & Mazie of Livington, N.J., says the plaintiffs’ team expects to file additional suits in other states, with one in New Jersey on tap soon. She doesn’t expect litigation to be filed in Texas in the near future, but expects it down the line. The suit alleges more than 8 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States from 1619 to 1865. Sammons says the timing of the class action litigation stems from research completed recently by Farmer-Paellmann, who is tracing links between U.S. corporations and the slave trade. “It hasn’t been until recently that we have gotten the facts to support connections between the corporations and the slave trade,” Sammons says. Sammons says U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has tried since 1989 to get Congress to simply talk about the issue of reparations for blacks, but hasn’t been successful in getting the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act out of committee. And, she points out, litigation historically has been an effective means of improving the civil rights of Americans. But Shelby Moore, a professor at South Texas College of Law who moderated the discussion on Thursday, isn’t so sure litigation is the way to go. She says it may be easier to get reparations for descendants of slaves by going to Congress. Obadele is taking yet another route. Obadele and two others of African heritage filed a claim with the Office of Redress Administration in 1998, seeking redress under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for the payment of $20,000 to people of Japanese ancestry who were evacuated, relocated or interned during World War II. His claim was turned down in 1999 on the ground he’s not Japanese, but he’s appealing that decision. He said Congress passed the law in 1988 to pay money to Japanese who spent time in internment camps in the United States and he’s simply trying to make the federal government provide an equal benefit to the descendants of slaves. Obadele isn’t opposed to the reparations suits, but he adds, “we don’t want, like with the tobacco fund, these huge amounts going to the lawyers.” The distribution of any reparations money isn’t a clean-cut issue. Thomas and Wiltz said they favor reparations money going to aid the black community and using it to help people get an education and buy houses. “I don’t necessarily believe each African-American should receive a check in the mail,” Wiltz said. “I want to see economic development for our people. I’m more interested in our African-American children getting education than a check.” Moore asked the panelists to define who should be eligible for the benefits of reparations. Wiltz said it should be the same group of people who were discriminated against — those who have at least one drop of African blood.

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