This is written for those who argue against reparations for slavery on the grounds that slavery happened oh so very – too – long ago to be a rational idea; for those who contend that no living black people were slaves; who argue that no living white people were slave owners; for people who insist, therefore, that the time to ask for slavery reparations has long since passed. And, anyway, why didn’t the ex-slaves themselves demand reparations/compensation?
Mary Frances Berry is a former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and currently a Professor of History at University of Pennsylvania – among many other things. Berry’s 2006 book, My Face is Black is True, chronicles the life and times of Callie House, a Tennessee ex-slave who had been born into slavery at the outset of the Civil War. Berry meticulously details the universal and grinding poverty faced by House and virtually all other ex-slaves and their children. House, despite the simultaneous rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, organized hundreds of thousands of black people into a sustained national movement which demanded federal government compensation for blacks’ 246 years of free labor provided to this country.
Following Emancipation and the subsequent demise of a short-lived Reconstruction (1866-1877), white backlash and white vengeance against the very idea of freedom, equality and citizenship for America’s ex-slaves forced black people into a kind of socio-political limbo or quasi-human status. Indeed, ex-slaves were summarily betrayed by all levels of government because they were offered nothing to begin their lives as a “free” people. (Contrast this with the situation of America’s earlier white indentured servants. Upon expiration of their terms of service, they were given “freedom dues,” including land, livestock, seed, foodstuffs, clothing…and guns).
As Professor Berry informs us, Callie House was a Tennessee ex-slave, a washerwoman, and widow with five children. At the time, washing white folks’ clothes was a common and virtually exclusive means of eeking out a living for millions (most) of black women throughout both the North and South.
In 1890, a white Southern Democrat and former slave owner, Walter Vaughan, produced a pamphlet calling for awarding ex-slaves pensions, similar to the pensions Civil War veterans had been receiving since the end of the war. Callie House and a former employee of Vaughan, Isaiah Dickerson, understood Vaughan’s notion of a pension for ex-slaves as not being based in any altruistic motives toward black people. Rather, Vaughan hoped to see blacks rise so that they would no longer be a “burden” on white people individually and the government generally. Still, Dickerson and House’s imagination was ignited by Vaughan’s proposal. In short, they liked and adopted the idea – but for very different and very obvious reasons.
House and Dickerson soon developed a proposal, modeled on Vaughan’s pamphlet, which demanded $68 million in taxes from seized rebel cotton be paid directly to ex-slaves. Unlike Vaughan, however, their effort was based around organizing poor blacks ex-slaves throughout the South.
Thus, by the mid-1890s, these two embarked upon an odyssey across Tennessee, discussing their proposal and organizing ex-slaves into chapters. Their success was immediate and electric. As Professor Berry documents, House and Dickerson soon crossed the state line and began organizing throughout the South. They gathered thousands of signatures and labeled themselves the freshly minted National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. They employed black lobbyists who worked the halls of Congress to get a bill passed granting pensions to former slaves.
Membership dues were apportioned among the national office to pay their lobbyist and office staff, and among the local chapters to help pay medical and funeral costs for its members, since most members lived in such deep poverty that they could not afford these expenses on their own.
Dr. Berry described a “day in the life” of these poverty-stricken ex-slaves: They worked throughout their lives into old age until they dropped dead. Sharecropping and tenant farming, washing laundry or performing the hardest of hard labor in the mines and budding factories were their seemingly preordained lots in life. They also did live-in household work as maids and butlers. Obviously, these barely subsistence-level “jobs” provided no possible opportunities or means to escape from a form of poverty that was simply recycled generation after generation after generation. These jobs was not meant to. They were meant to maintain the “status quo” – white supremacy.
Thus, is it any wonder that Callie House’s organization attracted hundreds of thousands of people? The Association quickly grew into this nation-state’s largest organized black movement – before the NAACP, before Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and certainly before the modern Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. At its height, House’s National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association counted more than 300,000 dues-paying members.
To be sure, not all black people supported the movement. As led by Booker T. Washington, the negligible number of “middle-class” blacks thought that House’s Association was impractical and actually distracted from what they considered a more important fight: voting rights. Washington openly disparaged the Association as a concept and its leaders in speeches and newspapers whenever he got the chance.
As Professor Berry points out in exquisite detail, the federal government’s response to House and the Ex-Slave Association set a pattern which has been followed ever since – whenever black people organize themselves to fight (peaceably or otherwise) white supremacy. The Association depended on the U.S. Post Office to communicate with and recruit members. The Post Office also, of course, was the conduit for soliciting dues to fund the national campaign.
This activity ruffled the feathers of something called the federal Pensions Bureau. According to Professor Berry, the Bureau grew increasinly alarmed by the success of the Association and accused it of “setting the Negroes wild…and making anarchists of them.” Yes, the obvious success of the Association, the Bureau continued, “will have some very serious questions to settle in connection with the control of the race.”
Thus, at the behest of the Pensions Bureau, the Post Office denied the Ex-Slave Association use of the mails, because it was duping “ignorant” ex-slaves in a fraud scheme.
Despite a sustained letter-writing campaign from many prominent blacks and some whites, which attested to the honesty and integrity of the Association, they never regained access to the mails.
House and the Association understood, of course, that the government’s objection to their work had nothing to do with purported fraud. Rather, it was obvious and clear that the spectacle of 300,000 organized black men and women demanding government compensation for America’s second original sin was not something white people generally or the government particularly were prepared to entertain.
The mail ban sounded the death knell of the Association.
Dickerson was framed for fraud in Atlanta, although later his conviction was overturned.
A civil suit against the Bureau and the Post Office was thrown out the the D.C. Court of Appeals because…well the government always enjoys “immunity” when citizens complain against it.
As for Callie House, she too, was framed for fraud and convicted. She was sentenced to a year and a day and served nine months in federal prison. This woman was the beating heart of the Association. She had organized most of the chapters, interviewed thousands of ex-slaves, and convinced them to fight for compensation for their lifetimes of unremitting, unpaid labor.
She was released from jail in 1918 after a 20-year career of trying to help black people – the original ex-slaves – get paid. She was forced to return to her “occupation” as a washerwoman after her release. Callie House died in 1928.
Finally, Callie House was not interested in the government merely acknowledging responsibility or apologizing for what it had allowed to occur under its “watch.” Callie House’s demand was simple and straightforward. Her cause, her movement, was not complicated or nuanced. Her demand was – and remains – something that everyone who works for a living should easily, naturally, relate to: Callie House demanded that black people be paid for working for free all those damn years – centuries.
A personal note:
My mother was born in 1915, while the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association was at its height. Her grandmother, “Mama Perlina,” was born a slave in 1861, the same year Callie House was born.