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