Give respect to intentions of ancestors

January 07, 2007|By Pearl Duncan

Last month, judges in the reparations case in federal court in Chicago ruled that the plaintiffs - "American descendants of slaves" - could sue the defendants - companies that participated in and benefited from slavery - for consumer fraud if the companies hid the history of their slave-related activities to attract customers who would not do business with them if the details were known.

The companies can be sued for misleading consumers by concealing their involvement in the 19th-century American slave trade.

But the court also ruled that these descendants cannot sue for reparations, based on injury or damage to their ancestors, because the statute of limitations has expired.

I was surprised to read, amid all the legal arguments, the judges' citations of economic theories of "intergenerational mobility" and "correlation of wealth across generations." Essentially, these arguments center on what our ancestors intended for us. In order to prove standing, the judges said, descendants had to identify, cite and prove bequests left by ancestors. As I considered this very high bar that the court had set, I wondered what future generations would say about the bequests we left - or failed to leave - for them. As a person of modest means, I have no financial bequest, but I am committed to leaving a cultural bequest for future generations. Such a bequest can consist of activity in the arts, in community development, in civil rights. People who tell stories about their lives, their communities and their times also leave cultural legacies.

There is an expiration on legal bequests, but is there one on cultural or historical bequests? When Congress abolished slavery on Dec. 18, 1865, did it bequeath anything else?

According to the court, the challenge for descendants of slaves - the bar they had to scale to win the full reparations case - was complex and multifaceted: "If one or more of the defendants [banks, insurance companies, railroads, etc.] violated a state law by transporting slaves in 1850, and the plaintiffs can establish standing to sue, prove the violation despite its antiquity, establish that the law was intended to provide a remedy ... to lawfully enslaved persons or their descendants, identify their ancestors, quantify damages incurred, and persuade the court to toll the statute of limitations, there would be no further obstacle to the grant of relief."

The court cited the "political-question doctrine," that federal courts cannot adjudicate disputes that the Constitution entrusted to other branches of government. Specifically, the events cited in these cases occurred prior to the establishment of the 13th Amendment, and in some cases prior to the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but - despite proposals at the time to compensate former slaves and their descendants - it was unable to do much more for the ancestors who had been enslaved for almost 250 years in America.

This current case, which delves into our ancestors' intent, was brought by American descendants of slaves, of which I am one. I have found written records that speak to the intent of slaves regarding their descendants. Records as far back as 1726 and oral history from the 1600s in the British colonies in the Caribbean indicate that these ancestors wanted the best for their descendants. In my research, I uncovered secret birth and baptismal lists of slaves and free people, as well as wills and trusts of merchants and nobles. Black and white people alike risked imprisonment, fines, deportation and torture to leave a record of their children, who were descendants of slaves. They left records that communicated with future generations. Are we doing the same for our future generations?

Before there are additional court cases, before Congress and the executive branch can act on behalf of ancestors who intended for their descendants to be compensated for the injury done to them, we must understand the culture and history of all our ancestors.

When President Bush spoke last year at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he said that our African-American ancestors were "second founders" in America. But these "founders" were held in slavery, in violation of the future Constitution.

What did people of those generations do to mend the injury that was done to them? Did they say what they intended for us? And how will we say what we intend for future generations?

Pearl Duncan is the author of the forthcoming book, "DNA, Courage & Ordinary Folks," about using DNA, folk stories and genealogy to trace ancestors. Her e-mail is

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