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A stern judge presides as reparations fight begins

19 firms alleged to have benefited from US slavery

CHICAGO -- The next chapter in the legal battle for slave reparations is unfolding away from the spotlight, on the 24th floor of a federal building downtown under the guidance of a veteran judge known as "No Nonsense Norgle."

Lawsuits brought by a dozen plaintiffs in six states alleging that 19 blue-chip businesses benefited from slave labor in the 19th century have been consolidated for a single trial before US District Judge Charles Norgle.

While media have focused on Iraq and the California governor's race, 400 people have been packing into Norgle's courtroom to follow the preliminary phase of the landmark case.

"The real legacy of our nation's slave past is something most Americans seek to deny or repress," said Diane Sammons, a New Jersey lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. "It's not one of our proudest moments."

The plaintiffs include a 72-year-old Chicago nurse who is the daughter of slaves, a 46-year-old dispatcher for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority whose great-great-grandfather was a North Carolina slave; and a Somerset, N.J., man. They are asking that the insurance, railroad, tobacco, and financial firms named in the suit admit that they profited from slavery and establish a fund for health care, housing, and education for African-Americans.

"Our suits merely expose the tip of the iceberg," said Sammons. "We haven't come close to telling the whole story because it's too painful to admit."

Among the defendants are FleetBoston Financial Corp., JP Morgan Chase, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., all of which the suit says benefited by insuring slave ships, using slaves for labor, or financing businesses involved with slavery.

"The plaintiffs have failed to state a valid theory for recovering damages for wrongs inflicted on African-Americans enslaved over 100 years ago," said Andrew McGaan, a Chicago lawyer representing Brown & Williamson of Louisville, Ky. "We are not aware of any case seeking reparations of this kind that has succeeded in a court of law, and we've filed a substantial motion to dismiss all of the claims and hope it is successful."

McGaan said he was "not aware of any defendant here who thinks that slavery was anything but a moral and legal embarrassment in our country's history. . . . However, the legal system is not designed to solve the problem that the plaintiffs are raising."

The separate suits filed in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana, California, and Illinois were consolidated onto Norgle's docket in the Northern District of Illinois in February.

Norgle moved the proceedings from the usual courtroom to the Dirksen Federal Building's ceremonial courtroom to accommodate the growing crowd of African-Americans from around the country who have been following the case. Courtroom observers have included people wearing the uniform of the Black Panthers and T-shirts bearing "REPARATIONS" across the front and back.

The depositions and stories passed down the generations are filled with painful testimonies of beatings, rapes, burnings, and destroyed identity and self-respect. Hannah Hurdle Toomey, 71, of Illnois tells of her father being auctioned off along with his siblings to a farm in Texas. Andrew Jackson Hurdle, who died in 1935, was 10 when he was sold into slavery to be a playmate for the farmer's son. Years later, he ran away.

Unhappy with the slow pace of the hearings, African-Americans following the case have accused Norgle, who is white, of being biased and fear he will dismiss the suit. Norgle declined requests for an interview.

"What is on trial here is whether Judge Charles Norgle has the courage to allow the facts to come out after 247 years of slavery and dehumanization," said Lionel Jean-Baptiste, an Evanston, Ill., lawyer representing Toomey.

Norgle, 66, was nominated by President Reagan in 1984. He has a history handling complicated cases. A Republican who came up through the court system in conservative DuPage County, the judge earned his nickname from Chicago lawyers because of his decisiveness in the courtroom.

The contemporary reparations movement began in 2000 when Aetna Inc., of Hartford, issued an apology after a student at the New England School of Law uncovered the company's history of insuring the lives of slaves.

The student, Deedria Farmer-Paellman, now a New York City lawyer and one of the plaintiffs represented by Sammons, became a lawyer to help African-Americans find a way to seek reparations. Her method has been to search historic documents for evidence linking modern corporations to slavery. Sammons said that the hearings in Chicago are a beginning, and that they will slowly draw increased attention from the media and American citizens.

"There are people who believe we can't win this case," Sammons said. "It has already succeeded on one level as we open the eyes of the nation to how our esteemed and celebrated institutions had their origins in slave profits."

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