Farmer-Paellmann, Deadria 1966–
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann 1966–
Deadria Farmer-Paellmann set aside a promising law career to become one of the foremost researchers into the links between the slave trade and American corporate interests of the nineteenth century. In 2002 she gained media attention for launching a lawsuit that demanded reparations for the descendants of American slaves, based on the premise that several U.S. corporations had profited from the practice of slavery in the years before the Civil War of 1861-65. Named in the suit was Aetna, the largest insurer in the United States, along with a financial corporation and a railroad. “They have played a role and they should be held responsible,” said Farmer-Paellmann in an interview with Virginia Groark of the New York Times, adding, “And later on down the road there will be more companies.”
Born in 1966, Farmer-Paellmann spent her early years in East New York, a suburb of the city of Brooklyn. She grew up in a single-parent household headed by her mother, Wilhelmina Farmer, who sometimes depended on public assistance to feed and clothe Farmer Paellmann and her five sisters. When Farmer-Paellmann was about seven years old, the family moved to the largely white Brooklyn enclave of Bensonhurst, where they became the only African-American family in their immediate area. They were harassed constantly, Farmer-Paellmann told New York Times reporter Robin Finn. “Probably not a day went by when I didn’t hear [a racial slur]. It seemed like every time the window was repaired, something would get thrown through it again.”
A gifted pianist as a child, Farmer-Paellmann eschewed a career in music and instead earned a degree in political science from Brooklyn College. She had long been fascinated by stories about her ancestors, who had been rice farmers in South Carolina. The grandparents of her grandfather, Willie Capers, were once slaves on a rice plantation on St. Helena Island. Farmer-Paellmann told Christina Cheakalos in a People interview that, in telling this family history, her grandfather Capers sometimes remarked, “They still owe us 40 acres and a mule.’”
At first, noted Farmer-Paellmann in People, “I didn’t know what he was talking about.” Her grandfather’s observation stemmed from an 1865 assertion by
At a Glance…
Born in 1966, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Wilhelmina Farmer; married a German executive; children: one daughter. Education: Brooklyn College, BA in political science, 1980s; George Washington University, MA, 1995; New England School of Law, JD, 1999.
Career: Freelance legal researcher and reparations activist, 2000s-; Restitution Study Group, lnc., executive director, 2000s–.
Addresses: Office —Restitution Study Group, Inc., P.O. Box 1228, New York, NY 10009.
Union Army General William T. Sherman, who led the forces that routed the Confederates in several Southern states. Sherman declared that every slave freed by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would receive a parcel of land and the livestock with which to work it. Lincoln’s 1865 assassination resulted in a changed political landscape, and the order was rescinded by his White House successor, Andrew Johnson.
Under Johnson’s plan for the reconstruction of the South in its new, post-slavery economy, the plantation lands were returned to their original owners, who simply hired the freed but now destitute and essentially homeless former slaves for pennies a day. There were some legal attempts to win the promised reparations, but the best challenge, filed in 1910, failed in the courts. “I was shocked,” Farmer-Paellmann told People, of the time when she learned of this history. “Then I got angry.” In 1992 she was serving as the artistic director for a vigil near Manhattan’s City Hall. She and the other protesters were trying to prevent the excavation of a seventeenth-century African burial ground in order to create a new parking lot. She was allowed onto the site one day, where some 20,000 black Americans had been laid to rest generations earlier, and realized that they, too, “lived, worked and died in this city, and they never got their reparations,” she told Finn in the New York Times. “It moved me.”
After earning a master’s degree in lobbying and political campaign management from George Washington University, Farmer-Paellmann entered the New England School of Law in the mid-1990s. She decided to write a paper for one class on the reparations issue, and began researching the subject. She was particularly intrigued by recent court challenges filed on behalf of Holocaust victims from World War II. The German government had bowed to pressure and compelled some prominent corporations, which had operated factories during World War II using slave labor culled from the conquests of the Nazi regime, to contribute to a reparations fund.
In one New York archive, Farmer-Paellmann unearthed a crucial document during her five-year quest: an insurance policy from the pre-Civil War years that offered payouts to slaveholders to protect what was then considered their “property.” Typical of what she discovered was a brochure from the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut, which explained that, for a premium of $2 per year, a slave owner would receive $100 should a ten-year-old slave die. A similar document she found was from a company that later evolved into Aetna Insurance of Hartford.
Intrigued, Farmer-Paellmann wrote Aetna and asked them to send her the archival records dating from this era regarding slave insurance, and she received two documents in response. “I was really moved when I saw the policies,” she recalled in the New York Times interview with Groark. “It’s one thing to read about it and it’s another thing to actually see a copy of the policy, and it really caused me to pause. I have to say it was a very emotional experience.” Farmer-Paellmann brought the issue to the media, and Aetna publicly apologized. “We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice,” a report by Tony Allen-Mills, writing in the Sunday Times of London, England, quoted the Aetna statement as saying. Farmer-Paellmann was stunned that the company had been so forthcoming about its past. She told People that at first “I thought, ’Wow, this is going to be easier than I thought.’” Not long afterward, the California legislature also passed a law that required all insurance companies doing business there to show present records of any slaveholder insurance policies they may have issued in the nineteenth century.
The Aetna admission and the new California law soon hit the news headlines, and the reparations issue was formally revived. Some historians noted that if the value of the once-promised 40 acres and a mule were adjusted, it could mean that every African-American family descended from slaves would be owed $40,000. The debate that Farmer-Paellmann’s actions ignited sometimes turned unpleasant, with one Canadian newspaper describing her as “a moral extortionist,” according to Finn in the New York Times. Farmer-Paellmann responded to such criticism by pointing out in the article that “no one calls the Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants moral extortionists. I know this is justice. People say we waited too long, but these guys were on it a hundred years ago, the ex-slaves themselves.”
In March of 2002, Farmer-Paellmann stepped up her efforts and became the coordinator for nine lawsuits filed in several states, including one in United States District Court in Brooklyn, against Aetna, FleetBoston Financial, and the CSX Railroad, in which she was listed as a plaintiff. FleetBoston, one of New England’s largest banks, had a corporate history dating back to John Brown, whose family fortune helped found Brown University in Rhode Island. Brown was a slave trader who, with a group of other investors, chartered the Providence Bank of Rhode Island in 1791. CSX of Richmond, Virginia, used slaves to build its first railroad lines. Nearly all of the existing railroad lines east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon line that date back to the pre-Civil War era were built by slaves. “The court strategy invokes a concept known as unjust enrichment, in which not only was someone injured, but also that another party was enriched as a result,” explained Seattle Times writers Tony Pugh, Maureen Fan, and Ken Moritsugu. Farmer-Paellmann clarified this position when she spoke with CNN correspondent Peter Viles about the court cases. “These are corporations that benefited from stealing people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts,” she told CNN, “and there’s no reason why they should be able to hold onto assets they acquired through such horrendous acts.”
Instead of cash payouts, Farmer-Paellmann and other groups involved in seeking reparations are looking to the German model, hoping that reparations could be placed in a trust fund to be used for jobs, housing, and education. Interestingly, Farmer-Paellmann is married to a German executive, with whom she has a daughter. She lives in the New York area, and continues to research the murkier side of American corporate history. Her efforts have linked some 60 U.S. companies to the slave trade. Though her grandfather died in 1999, he already knew of her work on the reparations cause. “I called him when I was in law school to tell him I was developing the case,” she told People. “He was proud.”
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 26, 2002.
New York Times, August 8, 2000; May 5, 2002. People, October 28, 2002, p. 95.
Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 20, 2002. Seattle Times, March 27, 2002, p. A1.
Sunday Times (London, England), June 10, 2001, p. 26.
“Suit seeks billions in slave reparations,” CNN, www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/03/26/slavery.reparations/ (December 29, 2003).
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