Open Letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, Chief Justice John Roberts and other Smithsonian Board of Regents Members

Dear Vice President Harris, Chief Justice Roberts and all members of the Smithsonian Board of Regents,

I represent the Restitution Study Group, a New York-metro organization concerned with slavery justice. 

I am also one of millions of American people who descend from persons enslaved by the Kingdom of Benin in exchange for the metal manillas they melted and cast into the Benin bronzes.

It is our understanding that a Board of Regents meeting is scheduled for next week Monday, October 24, 2022. We are reaching out to you in reference to the Benin bronzes that may be on the agenda for deaccession for transfer to Nigeria.

We want you to vote “No” on the deaccession of the 20 Benin bronzes the Smithsonian announced you would be voting on soon. If you can reverse the previous vote to deaccession 39, we ask that you do that too. 

We believe you voted under misleading circumstances — deliberately made unaware of the fact that most of the bronzes were cast with metal manillas the Benin kingdom was paid for people they sold into the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century.

We do not believe you would betray the American public and disregard the interest of the descendants of people enslaved by the Kingdom of Benin by gifting the slavery tainted bronzes to Nigerian slave trader heirs.

The Director of the National Museum of African Art has been misleading us about the slave trade history of the bronzes. We think they deliberately misled you too. The slave trade origin is certain, she says it is not. But the Kingdom admits to the truth in their 2018 book The Benin Monarchy on pages 205 and 103. 

Top scholars agree on this too. Two of the foremost scholars submitted verification letters included in a request for injunction we filed in the United States District Court in Washington, D.C. A third scholar with a specialty in Black Studies agrees on this too and his letter is also in the injunction exhibits.

There is a lawsuit pending against the Smithsonian because the transfers are illegal according to United States law. The law does not allow transfer outside of the Smithsonian system unless there is consideration. This transfer is a gift to the heirs of slave traders, they are not paying for them as the law requires. The cost would be an estimated $200 million for these and about that much for the next set you will vote on soon.

The Benin kingdom enslaved us for 300 years looting our villages, kidnapping our people, selling us into slavery, and using us for human sacrifice to make the Benin bronzes. They did not enslave their own Edo tribe males. They reluctantly sold Edo women and prisoners. Most captives were taken from neighboring nations — Igbo and Yoruba — my two Nigerian ethnic groups.

The Benin kingdom suffered one punitive Expedition and get the sympathy of the world. If they told the full narrative they would get less support on the return of the Benin bronzes. Would anyone sympathize with Germany trying to repatriate soap and lampshades made with Holocaust victims skin and bones to a Nazi museum? 

Today, Benin City, the home of the kingdom of Benin, is still a slave trafficking capital of the world. Our US State department warns of travel to Nigeria because of the risk of kidnap for sex slavery, organ harvesting and human sacrifice in money rituals. The kingdom’s centuries of slave trading has left a profound and tragic imprint on the culture of their homeland. We should not reward this legacy with the fruit of ill-gotten gains.

Today 93% of African Americans and 82% of Jamaicans and other Caribbeans are descendants of enslaved people from the place we call Nigeria. Over 3.6 million people were sold into slavery from this area during the transatlantic slave trade. The Benin Kingdom made money off all the people enslaved because they controlled the whole waterfront for present day Nigeria for 3 centuries. If they did not sell the captives directly, they were paid tribute/taxes by anyone who did. A preliminary review of the Transatlantic slave trade database reflects that they directly sold at least 103,000 people — as you know, the United Stares received a total of 388,000 enslaved people but we are over 40 million descendants today through the practice of forced breeding.

We did not win our request for injunction to stop the Benin bronze transfers that happened Monday, October 17th, 2022, because this issue is complex. Our judge needs more detail in the complaint and time to digest it. We should win the case on the merits and we do meet the procedural hurdles. However, if you vote to transfer the bronzes next week or any time before the pending case is heard, it will be too late.

There is no rush to deaccession and transfer. The Edo State museum the Smithsonian thinks they are going to won’t be built until 2025. Right now, it is just a huge hole in the ground being excavated by the State of Edo and a private/public partnership looking to make money off the bronzes that get returned.

I have been avidly studying the bronzes since 1999 when I did a law school paper on them. My child has grown up visiting them at museums, studying them along with me, and drawing them. She was inspired by the experience to become an artist, she works at an art gallery, and is now in graduate school for Arts Administration where she is developing the concept of building new museum audiences with the untold story of the Benin Bronzes — the narrative about their slave trade origin.

Like us, other descendants of enslaved people, who are forever linked to the bronzes through our ancestors and lost African culture due to enslavement and ethnocide, will flock to museums once they learn the truth. We ask that you Board Members ensure that we continue our enjoyment of our cultural relics and allow all Americans this unique experience by voting “No” on deaccession. “No” to gifting our legacy relics to Nigerian slave trader heirs.


Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, J.D., M.A.
Executive Director 
Restitution Study Group

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