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The story of the first reparations movement

Review by Hannah Fleury | April 20, 2007 | Page 13

Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Vintage (reprint), 2006, 336 pages, $14.95.

IN MARY Frances Berry's book, My Face Is Black Is True, she tells the story of Callie House, an ex-slave who, in the face of the immense poverty faced by ex-slaves and their children in the South and the rise of Jim Crow, reached hundreds of thousands of people with a movement to claim government compensation for labor performed during slavery.

In the years after emancipation, freedmen and women felt betrayed when they were given nothing to begin their lives in freedom. In this context, Callie House, a Tennessee ex-slave and widow with five children, took in laundry, a common occupation of Black women in the South.

In 1890, a white Southern Democrat, Walter Vaughan, for his own reasons, produced a pamphlet calling for awarding ex-slaves pensions, similar to the pensions Civil War veterans were eligible for. Although House and a former employee of Vaughan, Isaiah Dickerson, suspected Vaughan of having his own interests, they liked the idea.

They developed a proposal, modeled on Vaughan's, which targeted $68 million in taxes from seized rebel cotton. But their vision of how to win pensions was based on organizing poor Blacks throughout the South.

In the mid-1890s, the two began traveling throughout Tennessee, discussing their proposal with poor ex-slaves, with the strategy of forming chapters throughout the South to gather signatures in support of pensions, while a lobbyist for the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, as they would be called, would work in Washington, D.C., to get a bill passed.

A portion of membership dues went to the national office to pay their lobbyist and their office staff, while the rest of dues would stay with the local chapter to help pay medical and funeral costs for its members, since most lived in such deep poverty that they could not afford these on their own.

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BERRY DOES an excellent job of describing typical life of these poverty-stricken ex-slaves: They worked throughout their old age, sharecropping, washing laundry or doing live-in household work. No possible escape from poverty existed within the status quo. Thus, Callie House's organization had great appeal, and grew rapidly, reaching 300,000 members at its peak.

However, not all Blacks supported the movement. In the period of Booker T. Washington, most middle-class Blacks believed the Association was fighting for unpractical demands and were a distraction from fights around voting rights. They dismissed or disparaged the Association in newspapers and as individuals.

The government kept an eye on the work of the Ex-Slave Association. House, as assistant secretary of the association, traveled a lot, visiting local chapters, but the organization relied largely on the use of the Post Office to communicate and receive dues to fund the national campaign.

The Pensions Bureau of the federal government reported that the pension movement "is setting the Negroes wild...and making anarchists of them," and that were it to continue, the government "will have some very serious questions to settle in connection with the control of the race."

On the request of the Pensions Bureau, the Post Office informed the Ex-Slave Association that they would be denied the use of the mails, claiming the Association was duping "ignorant" ex-slaves in a fraud scheme. Despite many letters in protest, demonstrating their honesty and reminding them that they had a constitutional right to do their work, they never regained access to the mails.

House never acknowledged that it was not about fraud, but the threat of 300,000 organized Black men and women demanding government compensation. For years, the organization struggled on, aided by the strong commitment of their members, but the mail ban severely limited their work.

Making matters worse, Dickerson was framed for fraud in Atlanta, although later his conviction was overturned. With no way to legally challenge the Post Office, the national office tried some new strategies.

After a failed court case demanding the pensions, Callie House, too, was framed for fraud and jailed. House was the backbone of the Association. She had traveled to most of the chapters, had interviewed ex-slaves, commiserated with them, and convinced them to fight with the Association.

Her time in jail from 1917-1918 (where another fighter for social justice, Emma Goldman was also serving a sentence) marked the unofficial end of a 20-year lively movement of poor Southern Blacks fighting for the federal government to acknowledge some responsibility for their poverty.

This book is a must-read to understand the dynamics of how Blacks lived at the turn of the 20th century and that they did not accept second-class citizenship submissively without a fight. Perhaps best described by her government enemies: Callie House "is defiant in her actions, and seems to think that the Negroes have the right to do what they please in this country."

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