October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

As a child, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann always knew when her grandfather Willie Capers was feeling bitter about his people’s past. “He’d say, ‘They still owe us 40 acres and a mule,’ ” she recalls. “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

When she was 22, Farmer-Paellmann found out: In 1865 Union general William T. Sherman granted a parcel of land and the means to work it to all freed slaves—but they wound up getting neither. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the order was rescinded and the land reverted to plantation owners. “I was shocked,” says Farmer-Paellmann, 36. “Then I got angry.”

That rage propelled her through law school and five years of research. Now Farmer-Paellmann wants to get even. Her target: every U.S. company that profited from slavery. There are 10 lawsuits seeking reparations pending in six states, and Farmer-Paellmann is coordinating nine of them. She is a plaintiff in the first such suit, filed in March in New York City on behalf of more than 35 million African-Americans against Aetna, FleetBoston Financial and CSX. By employing, insuring, financing or transporting slaves, she says, “they played a role in the forced labor, torture and rape of people. They must pay.”

Calls for slavery reparations date back to the 1860s, and a half century later activists began filing suits against the U.S. But those efforts always failed, because the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity makes it extremely difficult to sue the government. Corporations, however, may be more vulnerable—as evidenced by a string of successful suits by Holocaust survivors. Farmer-Paellmann hopes for similar legal victories or to shame corporations into settling out of court. The lawsuits seek billions in cash that would be earmarked for jobs, education and housing, likely administered by a trust fund. “It’s an uphill battle,” says Robert Ward, dean of the Southern New England School of Law. “But Deadria has shifted the focus from government to corporations, and that’s significant.”

Her adversaries argue that they are not responsible for what an Aetna statement called “events which—however regrettable—occurred hundreds of years ago.” Farmer-Paellmann counters that there “is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.” Adds writer Antoinette Harrell-Miller, 41, one of 200 Louisiana plaintiffs: “Many people feel we should just get over it. Well, my mother is the second generation from slavery, and I am the third. That doesn’t seem like such a long time ago to me.”

Nor does it to many of Farmer-Paellmann’s allies. Louisiana plaintiff Edlee Bankhead, who at 119 is reportedly the oldest man in America, is the son of a slave. So are the Hurdle brothers of California, Timothy, 83, and Chester, 75, who have filed suit against J.P. Morgan Chase, Union Pacific and other companies. The Hurdles’ father, Andrew Jackson Hurdle, survived being shot in the head while escaping a Texas plantation. “I don’t want anything for myself, not a penny,” says Timothy, a retired launderer. “I hope this will give young black people pride and hope.”

Farmer-Paellmann herself is descended from South Carolina rice workers. She grew up poor in Brooklyn, one of six girls of Wilhemina Farmer, a single mother. “We didn’t go outside to play,” she recalls. “It was too dangerous.” Still, she thrived academically and graduated from Brooklyn College with a political science degree. “I went to law school just to make a case for reparations,” says Farmer-Paellmann, who earned her degree from New England School of Law in 1999. (She has yet to take the bar exam.) Her first victory came in March 2000, when she confronted Aetna with evidence that it had insured the lives of slaves for their owners—and gained a public apology. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be easier than I thought,’ ” says Farmer-Paellmann. It wasn’t. She later filed suit, and the case is pending.

These days she continues mining archives—so far she has identified 60 firms as potential targets—and coordinating litigation. She comes home to a Manhattan apartment shared with her husband of five years (a German executive whose contract forbids him to be politically involved) and their daughter Sabina, 2. Farmer-Paellmann often wishes her grandfather, who died in 1999, could witness her campaign. “I called him when I was in law school to tell him I was developing the case,” she says. “He was proud.”

Christina Cheakalos

Bob Meadows in New York City, Champ Clark in Los Angeles and Alicia Dennis in Austin and New Orleans

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