A woman who was trafficked for 10 years as an unpaid laborer in various cities across the United States has been awarded nearly $8 million in damages by a federal judge in Kansas, believed to be the largest trafficking-related verdict in U.S. history.
Kendra Ross, now 27, said she was victimized by a group originally called the United Nation of Islam, which in 1978 split from the Nation of Islam headed by Louis Farrakhan. The group later changed its name to The Value Creators, with headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., and business and residential properties in seven other cities around the country.
For ten years, Ross was forced to work in the group’s bakeries or restaurants and live in its homes, was separated from her mother at age 12 and ordered to marry another group member at 20, a judge in Kansas City, Kan., found. She was also shipped against her will from Kansas City to Atlanta, then to Newark, Harlem, Tennessee and Ohio before escaping from the group at age 21, her lawsuit stated.
The Value Creators is headed by Royall Jenkins, who did not return messages seeking comment. Jenkins allegedly issued strict orders governing every aspect of his group members’ lives, from where they lived and worked to how they spoke, what they ate and whom they married. The members were denied proper health care and children were educated in the group’s uncertified schools, Ross alleged. Jenkins filed one jumbled document in the case but otherwise did not respond to the suit, and a default judgment was entered against him.
“This organization just took away her childhood,” said her lawyer, Betsy Hutson of the law firm McGuireWoods, which in 2015 began representing a shelter for trafficking victims where Ross stayed. “They stripped her of 19 years of her life, forced her to work for no pay, and subjected her to just inhumane conditions.” Ross testified in February that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, regular nightmares and anxiety.
After she testified, U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Crabtree told her, “The way you were treated was despicable,” according to a transcript of the hearing. “It’s not the way we treat each other in America. It’s not the way we treat each other here in Kansas.” Then Crabtree stepped down from the bench, walked over to Ross and shook her hand. “He said, ‘It’s an honor and a privilege to meet you,'” Hutson said.
It wasn’t until 2003 that federal laws permitted victims of trafficking to file civil suits against their captors. Martina Vandenberg, founder of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, said her group has tracked nearly 280 suits involving human trafficking, and Ross’s case was “the highest single-victim verdict that we’ve heard of.” In the center’s database of suits, Vandenberg said 93 percent were related to claims of forced labor.
Jenkins, the leader of both the United Nation of Islam and The Value Creators, has said that around 1978, he was abducted by angels or scientists, escorted through the galaxy in a spaceship, informed that he was “The Supreme Being” and instructed on how to govern Earth, according to Ross’s lawsuit. One of his first acts upon returning to Earth was to separate from the Nation of Islam, and he reportedly instructed his followers to refer to him as “Allah on Earth,” “Allah in Person” or “The Supreme Being,” Ross said.
Jenkins had at least 13 wives and 20 children around the country, Ross’s suit alleged, and formed communities of full-time followers in Kansas City, Kan., and elsewhere. “UNOI doctrine focused primarily on the supremacy of Jenkins as God on Earth,” the lawsuit states. “As such, disciples of UNOI — and now The Value Creators–consider Jenkins’ teaching as prophetical.” The teachings emphasize the superiority of black people to white people and that “women are inferior to men, and that women should completely submit to men to escape eternal damnation,” the lawsuit states.
Ross said in her lawsuit filed last September that beginning at age 11 she was forced to work in a United Nation of Islam-run bakery for a few hours before school, and a full eight-hour shift after school, for which she was never paid. At 12 she was removed from her mother’s home and sent to a women’s house run by the group, while continuing to work either in the group’s businesses, providing childcare or cleaning homes seven days a week. She testified that her irregular schooling, which often consisted of watching horror movies, was stopped when she was 15.
At 16, Ross was relocated to Atlanta without her consent, and made to work full-time in a group-owned restaurant, then, once she returned home, cook and clean for a household of about 15 people, her suit said. Later that year, she was moved back to Kansas City where she said she was subjected to physical and emotional abuse by her home’s caretaker.
At 17, Ross said she was moved to New Jersey, where she worked as a cook and waitress in restaurants in Newark and Harlem, N.Y. She said she was told to avoid any child labor investigators and if any appeared, she should “take a walk.” Two years later, she was moved to Dayton, Ohio, where she worked six days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. in another UNOI restaurant without pay.
In her court testimony, Ross was asked if she were ever granted days off or holidays. “No,” she said, “I mean, Royall’s birthday was, like, Christmas basically, so everyone — all of the members everywhere kind of took a break and came to Kansas to celebrate this birthday of his and that was, like, a few days and then I was back to work.” She estimated there were about 600 members of the United Nation of Islam, and did not know how many members the Value Creators have. The group changed its name in 2015.
No lawyers appeared for Jenkins or the Value Creators at the hearing.
In 2011, at age 20, the group “facilitated a marriage between Ms. Ross and another UNOI member through a psychic doctor who claimed to have unique knowledge of compatibility among UNOI members,” the lawsuit stated. She said UNOI husbands “regularly practiced polygamy,” and that her marriage was not legal.
In 2012, Ross fled from the group and eventually entered a shelter for trafficking victims.
Ross’s lawyers sought back pay for the thousands of hours of unpaid labor she had performed over the years. Crabtree granted her $453,517 for restitution. He also awarded her $2.92 million for emotional distress, $3.37 million for punitive damages, and nearly $1.2 million for racketeering damages and unpaid overtime.
Collecting the judgment may prove challenging, since Jenkins was difficult to locate and is believed to now live in Arizona, Hutson said. The Value Creators may own a number of commercial and residential properties in the cities where Ross lived.
Ross was unavailable for an interview but issued a statement thanking her lawyers, who were awarded $117,000 in fees and costs. “Mostly, I’m very happy that justice has been served and that Royall, UNOI, and The Value Creators are exposed,” Ross said. “Although this legal win doesn’t change anything that has happened in the past, it makes me feel like some justice has been served. I’ll always live with the memories of what’s been done to me. To all of the members who are still a part of The Value Creators, and those who have left, it is not too late to get out, to be free and get help, justice and closure.”