Businesses seek dismissal of slavery ties suit

A dozen remaining defendants in a 2006 lawsuit alleging they violated a city ordinance requiring them to research and disclose their ties to the African slave trade will argue for the suit's dismissal in Cook County Circuit Court today.

The lawsuit, brought by longtime black activist and founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party Bob Brown, seeks a court order forcing the companies to research and disclose "any and all records ... of investments or profits from slavery, the slave industry, or slaveholder insurance policies."

Under a five-year-old city ordinance sponsored by former  Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, companies doing business with the city of Chicago are required to search company and company predecessor records for "records of investment or profits from the slavery era…and disclose the names of any and all slaves or slaveholders described in those records," the lawsuit says.

Brown's suit originally named 102 cities and businesses in a complaint that ran to more than 600 pages and included  13,000 footnotes purporting to document the defendants' undisclosed slavery records. He later voluntarily dismissed all but the 12 remaining defendants.

The Archdiocese of Chicago, United Airlines, American Airlines, Willis of Illinois, Maximus, Unison-Maximus, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup, ABN AMRO and Bank of America maintain they are not in violation of any city laws.

Brown's complaint demands tens of thousands of dollars in civil penalties and fines for each finding of false statements and false representations. He is also seeking the appointment of an independent commission to monitor compliance with the ordinance.

According to the lawsuit, failure to either research or disclose any slavery ties would void any business agreements  between the company and the city.

"The moment the law became effective, I began researching two or three thousand vendors to the city of Chicago," Brown said.

Over 2,000 vendors filed economic disclosure statements. Of those, the majority did not file slave-era disclosure statements, Brown said.

Brown's research comes largely from transportation records compiled in a Harvard University database of  more than  27,000 transatlantic slave voyages between 1650 and 1867. The database includes records of ship ownership, captains, ports, number of slaves, and the business organizations of slave traders.

Brown said his main goal is to expose the connections between the slave trade and business.

"This suit is part of an ongoing fight for civil rights, democracy and peace in Chicago," said Brown. "If my mama sold slaves," he said, "I want the record set straight."