Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations

By Mary Frances Berry

Knopf. 314 pp. $26.95

Are African Americans owed reparations for the toil extracted from their forebears under slavery? Many who think not make the argument that the call for reparations is merely a recently hatched scheme driven by selfish motives. It isn't. As Mary Frances Berry's fascinating new book reveals, the campaign for reparations has a long and respectable history.

At the center of Berry's story is Callie House. Born a slave in 1861, the first year of the Civil War, House grew up in a poor family in central Tennessee. In 1898, she was a mother of five, earning around $2 a week as a Nashville washerwoman but finding time to organize the first convention of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, an organization that provided direct aid to ex-slaves and lobbied Congress for bounties and pensions. She seems to have been born with a talent and passion for organizing. And, as Civil War veterans' organizations successfully lobbied state and federal governments for better pensions, she became outraged that the former slaves she knew, many of whom had served as laborers for the Union army, received nothing. House, who became the longtime secretary of the association, launched a petition drive to collect the signatures of all ex-slaves -- about two million were still alive in 1898 -- by using the local chapters to contact them.

House drew, in part, from an ex-slave pension bill drafted by Walter Vaughan, a Democrat from a former Alabama slaveholding family, and proposed to Congress by William J. Connell, a Republican from Nebraska. The bill proposed a sliding scale of payments: $500 bounties and $15 a month for the oldest ex-slaves; $100 bounties and $4 a month for the youngest. Vaughan pretended to care about the plight of former slaves, but, according to Berry, his true purpose was to help Southern whites by pumping federal money through the hands of blacks into the moribund Southern economy.

The national pension movement soon ran into roadblocks. Congress failed to take up the bill, and the prospects for legislation became hopeless when Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born, pro-segregation Democrat, became president. A separate initiative by the group to sue the government for the "cotton tax" -- $68 million collected between 1862 and 1868 from the sales of cotton picked by slaves -- also fizzled. Like most modern reparations lawsuits, this one was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, the principle that the government cannot be sued without its consent.

But the U.S. Postal Service was the association's ultimate undoing. Invoking the Comstock law, which prohibited the transport of obscene or fraudulent materials through the mails, postal agents prohibited House from distributing the petition, disingenuously claiming that they were protecting blacks from scam artists. House and fellow organizers protested to Congress and the courts that the ban violated their First Amendment right to free speech. But lawmakers refused to lift the order, declaring that the use of the post was a privilege, not a fundamental right, and that protecting the public from fraud outweighed any First Amendment claim. Government officials smeared House and her associates as "colored agitators and crooks" and hid the fact that most of the money collected stayed in communities to assist needy blacks. Lawyers for the association failed to get the postal order lifted, and federal prosecutors eventually arrested House and other leaders. Only House did prison time, entering a Missouri penitentiary in 1917 and serving eight months (Emma Goldman was a fellow inmate). By 1928, when House died of uterine cancer, her movement was defunct and had begun to fade from memory.

Why has House's story been hidden for so long? Historians are partly to blame. Early on, Walter Fleming, one of the deans of Southern history, derided the ex-slave-pension movement as a scam. House became such an obscure figure that Berry, who grew up in House's hometown of Nashville, did not hear about her until the 1960s. In 1972, Berry published an article in the "Journal of Negro History" refuting Fleming's charges of fraud but admitting that a full history of House "must await other evidence." She let the matter lie for 30 years and in the meantime wrote many other books and became a distinguished professor of history and law at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a longtime chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Now Berry has turned back to House and amassed that "other evidence," revealing not only that House's motives were pure but also that the government's real fear was that the movement would politicize African Americans -- "making anarchists of them," as one pension bureau inspector warned, and giving the government what he called "some very serious questions to settle in connection with the control of the race." The government's crusade suggests how serious House's operation was. Indeed, Berry's main purpose is to show that the quest for reparations is and was -- even 100 years ago -- a legitimate movement. Frederick Douglass supported the pension proposal, though most elite African Americans criticized reparations and argued instead for self-help or equal political rights. Berry, like House, waves a chastening finger at those who turned their backs on reparations, though she reserves her greatest condemnation for the white government officials who relentlessly kept efforts like House's from gaining traction.

Critics might quibble that the ex-slave-pension proposal was something different from modern calls for slave reparations. White reformers who sponsored ex-slave pensions, like those who supported grants of "40 acres and a mule" during Reconstruction, justified their proposals less as restitution for those sinned against in the past than as minimal entitlements for the needy of the present. But the distinction between restitution and minimal entitlements was meaningless to ex-slaves, whose memories of what was taken from them fused with the painful realities of what they now lacked. Beneath House's pension proposal was a philosophy of restitution that distinguished it from other emerging welfare programs of the time. "We deserve for the government to pay us," House declared, "as an indemnity for the work we and our foreparents was rob[bed] of from the Declaration of Independ[ence] down to the Emancipation." House's words and works anticipated, perhaps even sparked, the modern reparations movement. Berry has brought this leader from obscurity and given her cause the recognition it deserves. No one can fully understand the history of the reparations movement without reading this book. *

Michael Vorenberg teaches history at Brown University and is the author of "Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment."