Callie House and the Struggle for Reparations

By William Reed
Under President Barack Obama, the concept of affirmative action has fallen flat. Those who thought their fortunes would be better under a Black president are advised to support a role model such as Callie House. On the other end of the continuum, Callie House was a pioneering African-American political activist who sought to gain reparations for Blacks.
Only a special kind of school will teach of House. Born into bondage in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tenn., as Callie Guy, she married William House in 1883. Hardly a mere “housewife”, House reached hundreds of thousands of people with a movement claiming 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 1890, a White Southern Democrat, Walter Vaughan, produced a pamphlet that strongly recommended that ex-slaves be awarded pensions, similar to the pensions Civil War veterans were eligible to receive. House and a former employee of Vaughan’s, Isaiah Dickerson, liked the idea. Their vision was to organize poor Blacks throughout the South on how to get pensions due them. Both Blacks and Whites found favor with the concept of giving pensions to millions of ex-slaves because it would help improve the economic conditions of the South in general.

House and Dickerson formed The National Ex-Slave Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in 1884. The two traveled throughout the South promoting the idea of reparations or “pensions” for ex-slaves. They organized and formed local affiliate groups everywhere they went. The organization sustained itself through dues from its members. At local levels, The National Ex-Slave, Relief, Bounty and Pension Association functioned as a mutual aid organization providing burial expenses and support for the sick and infirmed. The organization was unique in its focus and political clout and accomplishments. They agitated for reparations but also supported candidates and paid lobbyists to push for legislation on behalf of African Americans.

Blacks caught up in contemporary American politics would do well to recognize, honor and celebrate America’s reparations movement. Active through the late 1880s, The National Ex-Slave, Relief, Bounty and Pension Association is an example of what today’s Blacks need. The Association was well organized. It held national and local conventions and spread the word about reparations to Blacks involved in grassroots organizations. Blacks readily took to the notion that the government should pay them for the years they labored without pay. But, the Association’s demise began when the federal Pension Bureau became alarmed by the excitement House’s movement was generating and persuaded the U.S. Postal Service to ban the National Ex-Slave Relief, Bounty and Pension Association from using the mail service.

The Association House and Dickerson started relied largely on the use of the post office to communicate and receive dues to fund itself and the national campaign. A logical and legal movement was doomed when the post office denied the Association use of the mail, claiming it was duping “ignorant” ex-slaves in a fraud scheme.
The reparations movement has always been opposed by the government. In 1916 four Blacks sued the U.S. Treasury for $68,073,388.99 in cotton taxes traced to Texas slave labor. The suit was subsequently dismissed on the grounds of government immunity.

As House and Dickerson raised the profile of the reparations movement the government countered with the Comstock Act of 1871, and claimed House was using the U.S. Postal Service to defraud the public. (A tactic they later used successfully against Marcus Garvey). In 1916 charges were brought against House claiming she defrauded ex-slaves. An all-White male jury found her guilty. Dickerson was also framed, but his conviction was later overturned.

The organization dissolved when House and Dickerson became overwhelmed defending themselves against charges the government brought against them. Callie House served nine months of her one year and a day sentence and was released for good behavior.
House is a reminder and impetus to Black Americans to sign up for reparations legislation with the same fervor as they are for Obamacare.

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