updated 9/27/2006 9:49:47 PM ET 2006-09-28T01:49:47

Lawyers for slave descendants asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to revive a landmark reparations case that demands 17 of the nation’s insurers and banks publicize and pay for their roles in the country’s slave trade.

The case, which names Wall Street behemoths JP Morgan Chase & Co., Aetna Inc., Bank of America, Lehman Brothers and others, says the companies’ predecessors issued loans to slave owners and, in some cases, owned, insured and transported slaves — all at a financial profit that helped ensure their success today.

“We were left in poverty. My family’s hardship and free labor was not in vain,” said Antoinette Harrell, a genealogist from Kentwood, La. who clutched raw cotton as she spoke inside federal court Wednesday.

But lawyers for the companies told a panel of judges at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that the case is without merit and the corporations did nothing to harm the current-day descendants.

“These are inherently speculative claims,” lawyer Owen Pell said.

The three-judge panel seemed to agree.

“If you think you’ve been wronged, it shouldn’t take 100 years to investigate the conduct of Aetna, Lehman Brothers and the like,” Circuit Judge Richard Posner said. “There are a lot of people living today whose parents were wealthy in the 19th century who have nothing.”

The case made its way to the appeals court after the lawsuit was dismissed last summer by a federal judge, who said the debate about reparations should be decided by the legislative or executive branch.

If the reparations advocates succeed, the companies will have to account for the income they earned from slavery, produce historical records and give up the profits earned from slavery. The damage awards would be used to create a court-supervised fund to help fix problems in the black community.

Critical juncture
Wednesday’s hearing comes at a pivotal time for the reparations movement.

This summer, the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church apologized for their roles in the slave trade and a North Carolina commission urged the state to repay descendants of a violent 1898 white supremacist campaign in Wilmington, N.C.

And corporations have begun to acknowledge their ties to slavery, in part because of a series of state laws requiring companies to do so. Several cities — including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland — also have laws requiring businesses to make such disclosures.

JP Morgan Chase has acknowledged it owned 1,200 slaves in Louisiana and accepted 13,000 others as collateral before slavery was abolished in 1865.

Lawyers pushing for the compensation said Wednesday the current day “market value” of the company-owned slaves would be at least $850 million.

The company has since apologized for its role in slavery and funded a $5 million college scholarship program for black students from Louisiana. Company spokesman Tom Kelly declined to comment on the litigation.

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