Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #2 – Callie House

June 29, 2008

Callie House is not an everyday name in women’s history, or even in African-American history. But she should be. An African-American washerwoman who had been born into slavery in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, she later moved to Nashville where she would launch a movement in the late 1890s for justice and civil rights that loomed so powerful and seemed so threatening to the established order of things that high-ranking officials in Washington, DC had her arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly took a variety of measures to suppress the movement.

Her cause? Federally paid pensions for former slaves, who had toiled for years and decades without wages. Motivated in part by the Federal pensions paid to former Union soldiers, and a similar, but different, type of ex-slave pension movement begun by white Southerner Walter R. Vaughan, House believed that only through activism within the African-American community could the cause be brought to fruition in a way that would be truly beneficial to the black community. Vaughan’s plan did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart; he simply wanted to bring more financial wherewithal to blacks still living in the South, as a way to prop up the South’s economic woes. Ultimately, he sought an “economic stimulus package” for blacks, who would then spend their funds with white merchants, thus growing the economy of the post-Reconstruction white South.

House partnered with an African-American man, also from Rutherford County, and a former agent for Vaughan, named Isaiah Dickerson. Together, they established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, hosting their first convention in 1898. The organization grew quickly, with local chapters established throughout the country. Not only was one of the stated aims of the organization to introduce and secure passage of a pension bill in Congress for former slaves, but it was also to provide assistance to members of the local communities, such as providing support for orphans and covering burial expenses.

As the movement gained strength and numbers, the Federal Government became increasingly suspicious, and House’s noble cause became one of unceasing struggle. House and other officers of the national organization were accused of fraud. The government charged that the organization was a mere sham, a way for House and others to make money by requiring membership fees which provided no service whatsoever. Eventually, House was imprisoned, but her cause continued. Time and again the government charges of fraud were proven to be unfounded, and time and again the charges would be resurrected. There was even division within the black community, with many middle-class blacks believing the unfounded charges of fraud, or preferring to pursue Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist message.

House died in 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Her movement for ex-slave pensions continued, but was never the same after her imprisonment. By the 1930s, those persons born in bondage were dying off. The Depression made it difficult to sustain the few chapters that remained, although their dues were often a dollar or less. By the end of the decade, the organization essentially ceased to exist.

There is much more to the story than I have provided here. This is simply a summary. The full story about Callie House and the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association can be found in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry, an excellent and detailed work about this tragically forgotten woman, and her heroic struggle for justice and civil rights. Berry spends the bulk of the book creating a detailed biography of House, and the growth and eventual death of the organization, but she also provides a helpful epilogue sketching out the legacy of House’s work throughout the twentieth century, and the continuing campaign for reparations for slavery, even today.

Although I enjoy reading about strong, little-known but heroic women of the past, I found Berry’s work especially intriguing, simply because House’s work – until now – was so tragically ignored and unknown.

© writingreading 2008

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Think History is Boring?

June 22, 2008

If you are one of the millions that think history is boring, get a load of this. The setting is Fairland, Texas, sometime in the 1880s. George Gautier had insulted the Pitman family and the women in particular by calling them lazy. Soon thereafter, Gautier’s wife was visited by the offended ladies. George wrote: “The Pitman women got angry and the next day came to my place, hoisted their clothes and patted their rear parts at my wife.”

This would be amusing and humorous enough if it ended there, but sadly and unfortunately, the feud turned deadly. The situation continued to escalate over several days, and finally George had had enough. He took his loaded pistol and a broom handle with a nail through it, and went to where his wife was receiving a “tongue lashing” from Mrs. Pitman. When he saw that Mrs. Pitman was giving his wife a genuine lashing with a bull whip, he proceeded to strike her with the broom handle. Mrs. Gautier had a small stick too, and she went to work. Gautier’s son joined in by throwing rocks, then went to the house to get a shotgun. By this time, Mr. Pitman had arrived, and threw a rock at Gautier, then tried to wrest the gun from Gautier’s hand. He failed, Gautier fired twice, and Pitman was dead.

George Gautier was eventually found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. He believed he was defending his wife and family, and although expressing some regret, with periods of deep remorse, on the whole, he was relatively unapologetic. He felt like he had been drawn into the conflict. “Let women go to fussing and they will never stop until they get the men to fighting – that is my experience,” he wrote.

Gautier is an interesting, if tragic man. I’ve read a lot over the past few years about vigilante violence, and I’ve always been fascinated with the “darker” aspects of history, but I’ve never read anything like his memoir. I’ve not encountered anyone who writes so matter-of-factly about the vigilante actions he was part of.

Gautier served both as a formal member of a Texas cavalry unit, but was also involved in guerrilla activities. For a while, he was a member of the early Klan in Arkansas, and before the war, and been involved in some vigilante actions in the late 1850s in Texas. He also took part in the great hanging at Gainesville, during the war. His life is bathed in blood.

What is unique about his account is the matter-of-factness approach he takes to his involvement in these events. He freely talks about numerous hangings and killings he participated in, and occasionally punctuates it with brief paragraphs of poignant remorse – but one wonders if he can possibly be sincere, when his regret seems so short-lived. Another interesting thing about him is every so often, he will interrupt his story to include a poem that he has written! A complex man, with many facets. A brutal hangman who writes poetry!

No, history’s not boring. Just let George Gautier tell you his story….

© writingreading 2008

Text referenced is:

Harder than Death: The Life of George R. Gautier, An Old Texan, Living at the Confederate Home, Austin, Texas written by himself, 1902, pp. 30-35, 39.


Reviving Women’s Lives through Cookbooks

June 19, 2008

I wrote a post recently about Carol and her dread of cooking. This was from a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. As I’ve continued reading this book, I just have to comment further.

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily detailed examination of, well, as the subtitle indicates – unearthing and resurrecting women’s lives and social surroundings through a detailed examination of various cookbooks. It’s not as boring or far-fetched as I may have made it sound, here. That little synopsis just simply doesn’t do it justice.

What Theophano does is to go far beyond the mere printed words on the page, to examine the ways cookbooks link multiple generations of women (heirlooms); how cookbooks also serve as guidebooks to womanly and wifely duties and decorum; how cookbooks were a way to gain or promote literacy among women; and how cookbooks, through the exchange and gathering of recipes, are a communal activity – and therefore can reveal a myriad of social interactions which often crossed boundaries of race and class which were otherwise insurmountable, given the time and place of their writing.

I am truly impressed with Theophano’s versatile range and analysis, and her ability to shed light on women’s lives and culture through this method. She is truly talented in the way she brings these women back to life, through something that on the surface seems so ordinary and mundane – a cookbook. And many of the women discussed in the book are otherwise obscure or unknown – simply everyday ordinary women. Now and then, there is a prominent authoress or lordly lady, but by and large, most are ordinary women.

I’m certain that my poor attempt to convey the drama and interest of this book falls short, but if you are interested in learning more about our foremothers, the history of home cookery, or general women’s studies, this is one not to miss!

©2008 writingreading


Procrastination Busters!

June 1, 2008

For the moment, at least, I think I’ve finally managed to break out of the procrastination bind I was in for a few weeks. I spent almost the entire day working on my NF book yesterday, and boy, does it feel good! I had enough momentum going I could have worked through the night, but decided getting a little rest might help me have a strong day today, too!

I thought about it, and here’s what has worked for me, to help get me out of procrastination and back into “real” writing (off-line, working on my book). For purposes of this post, I think for me I have two types of procrastination – active and passive.

Active procrastination is when I deliberately avoid work. It is a conscious decision. For example: write on my book or clean the bathroom? I think I’ll clean the bathroom.

Passive procrastination is when I try to sit down and write, and allow myself to get distracted. Maybe I decide before I get started to zip in and check my email – then look up two hours later and decide I hardly have time to get anything done before bed, so give up for the day. Or similar things. The passive procrastination method has been eating me up lately, so overcoming that is what I’m going to concentrate on, here.

Ten Ways to Break through Procrastination

  1. Avoid TV. Sounds simple, but hard to do.
  2. Avoid the Internet. Ditto. Email, websites, blogs – all are the pitfall here.
  3. Avoid doing “extra research.” This one is a tough one for me. I’m working on a non-fiction history book. Research is what it’s all about. But it’s easy for me to spend hours on this – and avoid writing – when maybe what I was “researching” really isn’t that important, at least, not in the first draft.
  4. Ignore the phone. I need to consider my writing time sacred. Just like I would turn off my cell phone if I went to church, I need to have the same sacredness and respect for my writing time at home. And ask others (friends, relatives, telemarketers) to have the same respect as well.
  5. Avoid re-reading an entire chapter. Sure, reading what you’ve written is an essential part of the writing process. But when I’m working on a book – there’s a lot to read. Instead, I need to stay focused only on the last page or paragraph that I’ve written – not the entire 20-page chapter.
  6. Stay focused. A corollary to #5 – I need to know where I’m going next in my narrative, and concentrate on that. “Avoid narrative distractions” is another way to put this. Do I really need to tell about Abigail’s dress at the ball when the storyline in this chapter is about the use of cotton bales to protect Union ships during the Civil War?
  7. When I stop for the day, make a note of where I’m going next. This technique has really been helpful for me, when I remember to do it. It helps me know exactly where to start the next time I sit down, and sometimes it has helped me to see gaps in my storyline or research that need to be filled in.

    These last three have been the most important for me, lately:

  8. Get right to work! I find the simple act of getting started to be my most difficult task. I can spend an entire hour meandering around before even opening the document on my desktop and sitting down and getting to work. Once I get started on writing, I’m fine, and can usually keep going. But it can take me an hour to get to that point, sometimes – and by then, it’s easy to be distracted and not-write at all.
  9. Make sure you are seated comfortably. The other day I figured out one of the reasons I couldn’t sit still at my computer while writing was simply because of my uncomfortable chair. I would fidgit, my legs would get twisted and cramp, and my arms hurt too because of the position of the keyboard on my desk in relation to my chair. I put a seat cushion in the chair, and voila – I have a six or eight hour day to my credit! Small things – big changes.
  10. Use music to my advantage. I’ve found that playing a CD of some of my favorite music helps in many ways. First, it puts me in a good mood. It gives me a positive outlook, and also helps focus my mind. It helps me avoid TV. It also, in some inexplicable manner, helps me stay focused enough to get started (#8). It helps me over that hurdle – which is a big one for me – and once I’ve cleared it, I can get underway. Music is so important for me to get started on my writing – that within 30 minutes, I am so engrossed in my writing that the music fades into the background, and I often don’t even notice when the CD finishes playing. That’s the kind of concentration I’m aiming for!!

I hope that I’ll be able to remember these techniques the next time I get stuck in a procrastination rut, and I hope you might find some of them helpful in your work as well. I’d love to hear from other writers about what works for you in overcoming procrastination.

©2008 writingreading